NHL referees are a mix of incompetence, inconsistency, and cowardice usually reserved for a low-level henchman in a poorly written action movie. Instead of dying before the third act, NHL referees are influencing the league’s most important games through inaction, and it may never have been worse than it was Sunday afternoon.
The Washington Capitals evened their best-of-seven series at 1-1 by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 in front of a mostly confused national audience. There were so many missed calls, non-calls, and unexplained calls that everyone could make a reasonable case officials were out to get one team.
Or drunk. We can’t rule out drunk.
The NHL rulebook apparently transforms between the regular season and the playoffs, which is to say penalties we all accept to be penalties in the regular season may not be penalties in the postseason. Come playoff time, the score, time remaining, and player involved tend to carry more weight than the illegal action itself. Referees have somehow rationalized not doing their jobs as “letting the boys play,” which results in referees improperly effecting outcomes through inaction instead of properly effecting outcomes through DOING THEIR JOBS.
Choosing not to do something has consequences all the same as doing something, which seems to be lost on people in stripes come playoff time.
That brings us to Game 2 of Penguins-Capitals.
It’s hard to even justify what happened in the second period, even if we agree it takes a murder at times to call a penalty in a playoff game. Referees looked away on Penguins forward Jake Guentzel getting tripped/kneed by Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen as if Niskanen was Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale. Then Devante Smith-Pelly had his feet chopped out from under him by Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel to negate a scoring chance, and referees treated Ruhwedel like Tommy Lister in Friday.
WHY ARE OFFICIALS SO SCARED??? PLAYERS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO ASSAULT YOU!
Maybe if it’s a tie game in the final minutes, going by the secret playoff rulebook, you don’t call those. But an injurious knee hit and a trip that takes away a possible goal in the second period? Those are complete no-brainers halfway through any game. This didn’t happen behind the play. GUENTZEL AND SMITH-PELLY HAD THE PUCK!!!
Also in the second period, Jakub Vrana scored 1.2 seconds after Brett Connolly slashed the bejesus out of Penguins goaltender Matt Murray for reasons our greatest philosophers will never understand. The goal was not overturned after an interference review—it wasn’t interference since Murray had time to reset after Connolly inexplicably went all Kathy Bates on his leg (does anyone get Misery references?)—but it was slashing, right? Maybe call it that before the goal? Since it was slashing? That thinking is too outside the box for the modern NHL referee.
Communication is another problem.
Capitals forward Tom Wilson attempted to remove Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin’s head from his body and there was no call. The play happened quickly and Wilson was chasing Dumoulin in the open ice when Dumoulin stopped because Alex Ovechkin was arriving with a hit from the front, so perhaps it was an accident. Maybe it’s not a penalty. It should be. But Dumoulin was dazed and knocked from the game.
A missed call isn’t anything new, but the difference was all four officials got together to talk about the hit. Then they skated to the benches to explain their decision not to call a penalty to each coach. Then they dropped the puck as if everything was totally normal.
Officials didn’t announce to the arena or fans at home what happened in that situation, even though it should be required if you stop the game to chat with each other. And it got worse! On the game’s crucial play in the third period, when it appeared Patric Hornqvist cut the Capitals’ lead to 3-2 with 11 minutes to play, setting up 11 minutes of the Caps absolutely crapping their pants until they died of dehydration, nobody turned on the microphone to let us know what was happening.
What was the call on the ice? Everyone seemed to think it was a goal. What did you guys say? Good goal? No goal? It would help to know the original call and it was hard to tell anything since while the Penguins were celebrating you guys stood around like impotent idiots working up the courage to ask a woman if you can buy her a drink. TELL US WHAT IS HAPPENING!!!
Turns out the call on the ice—no goal—was "confirmed" by replay. But then the NHL later said there was no definitive angle of the puck all the way across the line, so the call on the ice stood, even though NBC showed some pretty compelling footage of the puck completely over the line. So even when they do try to explain something to us, they screw it up. Maybe that's why these guys are chicken shit about every aspect of their jobs when the playoffs start. Calling penalties, explaining reviews … wait, THOSE ARE THE ONLY TWO PARTS OF THEIR JOB AND THEY WON’T DO THEM!!!
This last play in the third period is one you should hold in your heart, the play that shows you why you have to intimidate referees or dive to get them to do their jobs.
Evgeny Kuznetsov attempted to carry the puck between two Penguins defenders, one of which was Kris Letang, who reached with a free hand and impeded Kuznetsov. It was holding, clear as day. And it lasted for what felt like minutes. Kuznetsov churning his legs. Letang counting every one of Kuznetsov’s ribs through his jersey.
There would be no call. At least, not until Kuznetsov glared at the official that had a front-row seat for the whole thing. When the glare wasn’t enough, Kuznetsov dropped his stick. And it was only then that this official decided the illegal act was illegal and raised his arm. It was practically a Jedi mind trick that forced the referee to call the penalty.
If you’re not into hockey, imagine it like this:
A man is walking through a park. A mugger pulls out a knife. “Give me your wallet,” he screams. The man shouts for the police. The mugger stabs him. The man wails in pain. The mugger stabs him again. And all the while, a cop is watching this unfold in front of him and only thrusts himself into action after the third stabbing because the man looked at the cop like he was Jim Halpert on The Office.
We have reached a point where players have to use emotional blackmail just to get referees to call a two-minute holding penalty. Hockey players have to become the worst significant other you’ve ever had to get a penalty called in the playoffs.
It’s only going to get worse unless the NHL does something about it. And it’s not as though Gary Bettman has to commission a task force; he simply needs to tell referees to call all the penalties no matter the game situation. That’s like 15 minutes of his day, tops. Two paragraphs. One mass-email. He can probably get his secretary to do most of it. It’s not hard!
All people want is consistency. And if I know the NHL, it’s the league that always… gives the people… ah, shit.
Actually, forget it. This is never getting fixed. Sorry to have wasted your time.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.