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What We Learned: Why ‘letting them play’ is nonsense in the NHL

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Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

No one is going to sit here and disagree that wide-open hockey is preferable to the brand displayed by teams trying to grind out wins.

No one likes board play. No one likes a thousand guys standing in the neutral zone during breakouts. No one — as we learned when the Rangers did it last year — likes the focus to be on blocking shots. No one likes obstruction.

For this reason, we are told so very often that the most important things officials can do in the playoffs is "let the boys play."

It's a fun concept. When the whistles are away, teams are allowed to play at 5-on-5 hockey which is obviously the best way to determine which is better. Ideally, all 60 minutes of every playoff game would be played at even strength. But the problem with this insistence on letting guys play is that when you do so, they tend to start committing penalties, and that, in turn, necessitates that, at some point, some of the infractions actually have to be called.

So while it's all well and good to say that for the sanctity of any individual game to be upheld, the referees should certainly not start blowing the whistle and sending guys to the box, the fact of the matter is that it's their jobs to do so. Guys break the rules, guys go to the box.

This, for some reason, doesn't make sense to people at all times.

Take, for example, Brian Strait's penalty on Sidney Crosby in overtime yesterday afternoon, a call which resulted in the Penguins' power play overtime game-winner. That it was called in overtime was somehow this egregious thing, according to Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick and a thousand thousand Internet commenters, a decision made by a referee overstepping his bounds.

Had this call — which was the right one because Strait got beat on the inside, took his hand off his stick and pulled Crosby down from behind, easy-ish fall or not — been made in the first period, the number of eyebrows it raised around the hockey universe would have been precisely zero. This is the kind of thing that typically happens when a coach puts a decent enough defenseman like Brian Strait on the ice in a high-leverage situation against a generational talent like Sidney Crosby, after all.

But that it happened in overtime was somehow outrageous.

The thing is, I thought we all agreed that what we want out of referees most of all consistency. Did I miss the memo that this is the kind of thing that should go straight out the window once 14 teams get eliminated?

If guys are allowed to tackle players to the ice as much in the first 20 as they are the final five, then that's fine. You know what you're getting. But for the sake of the players and coaches, knowing exactly what will and will not constitute a minor penalty is very important. Jack Capuano is going to kick and scream about the call, and it's tough to blame him considering how hard and well his team played for the majority of the afternoon, but if that same play had happened at the other end of the ice, with Mark Eaton yanking on John Tavares' jersey from behind as he drove to the net, then gee whiz wouldn't he just think that was the best call in the world?

That anyone would complain about a soft call there seems silly given what we know about the state of officiating in the NHL today. The expectation a million years ago was that you had to essentially draw blood on a crosscheck to the face to get a call in OT, and because hockey is nothing if not stuck in its ways, that's the prevailing attitude even if reality doesn't bear out that this is the way things should go.

If you don't call it that way, you get situations like what happened to the Rangers on Saturday. Karl Alzner put the puck over the glass with 46 seconds to go in the third period of a tie game. No one touched it on the way up and over. It didn't hit the glass. This should have been, by rule, a two-minute minor for delay of game. This happened plain as day. But it came just a few minutes after the expiry of a slashing penalty on Troy Brouwer, and thus, it seems that was enough to convince officials, who huddled up to confer, that something — anything, really — must have happened to prompt Alzner to swipe the puck into the fifth row.

Then, when Steve Oleksy did it again early in the first overtime, that was apparently enough. Can't ignore two of them. Ryan McDonagh doing the same a little more than five minutes after that led to the power play that ended the game. And while, given the state of the Rangers' power play, it seems unlikely that they would have scored on the one unjustly denied them, this is what happens when you don't call things by the letter of the law.

Penalties are, I understand, a matter of subjectivity to some extent, but not in this case: A puck over the glass without touching anything is a penalty every time, or at least is supposed to be.

I don't know how you let that become an issue of not wanting to call too many penalties against one team in a row in a critical situation if you're an official. It's not your job to keep penalties even, it's your job to get them right. I'd rather have something that's a penalty in the first be called a penalty in the second and a penalty in the third and a penalty in overtime. Everyone knows what's what that way.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Cam Fowler might have started off the season quite poorly but he's really turned it around. He's got six points in his last eight games and Bruce Boudreau says he's been playing better for slightly longer than that. A functioning Fowler makes the Ducks extremely dangerous.

Boston Bruins: The reason the Bruins lost Saturday night? Probably all those odd-man rushes. Joffrey Lupul's second was a 3-on-2, Phil Kessel's was a breakaway, and James van Riemsdyk's was a 2-on-2 where both defenders pursued the puck carrier and left the goalscorer wide open in front of Tuukka Rask.

Buffalo Sabres: Looks like it would be smart for the Sabres to try to move up in the draft. Picking higher gets you a better player, you see.

Calgary Flames: In a poll of Flames fans, it seems they, like any other rational person, wants Calgary management unloading anyone with any type of trade value.

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes say they want to get a player who's NHL-ready with the fifth spot in the draft, which is already drawing comparisons to the 2003 crop. A young kid out of Austria named Thomas Vanek went No. 5 overall that year. Not a bad place to start.

Chicago Blackhawks: Patrick Kane is really helping the Blackhawks succeed in this postseason already, and the reason he's doing it is because he's passing a hell of a lot more than normal.

Colorado Avalanche: Avs players led the way for the good ol' US of A in their first game at the World Championships, with Erik Johnson scoring twice and Paul Stastny named player of the game for setting up a goal and winning 68 percent of his draws. To be fair, it was only Austria. Matt Duchene also scored twice to help Canada beat Denmark but who cares?

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets would really like to get faster and add more scoring. This is also true of the Ducks, Bruins, Sabres, Flames, Hurricanes, Blackhawks, Aval… well, you get the picture.

Dallas Stars: The Stars' new uniforms will be unveiled in late June. Please try to contain your excitement.

Detroit Red Wings presented by Amway: Kyle Quincey says that players are too afraid of being suspended to throw big hits but that sure didn't stop Air Abdelkader from taking off into Toni Lydman's face, so maybe it's just Quincey who doesn't want to get suspended.

Edmonton Oilers: Some people in Edmonton think the Oilers need to re-sign Nikolai Khabibulin but fortunately there are very few of them.

Florida Panthers: Looks like VUKOTA way over-projected the Panthers' scoring this year, though you have to think everyone who was any good at all on that team getting hurt had a lot to do with it.

Los Angeles Kings: Maybe Jonathan Quick isn't as bad as that shorthanded overtime goal he gave up in Game 1 after all.

Minnesota Wild: So the Wild aren't getting swept after all. Looks like that plan of just sitting back and letting Chicago come to them for the second half of the game worked out perfectly.

Montreal Canadiens: Jarred Tinordi is a very useful player for the Canadiens to have because, at 6-foot-6, he looks like Brian Gionta sitting on Brendan Gallagher's shoulders and wearing a giant trench coat to sneak into an R-rated movie.

Nashville Predators: The Predators say they are 90 percent likely to pick a forward at No. 4 overall. Y'know, unless Seth Jones drops to them. There's a one-in-10 chance of that happening, right?

New Jersey Devils: How do you fix the Devils? Re-sign Patrik Elias, move in younger defensemen by buying out an older one, and getting a top-six forward. All that stuff is easy. Unless of course they lose David Clarkson this summer, which would be really problematic.

New York Islanders: Everything about this play for the Islanders is gorgeous: The pass from Frans Nielsen. The job to corral it at full-speed by Kyle Okposo. The finish. Wowie zowie.

New York Rangers: I would love to know what Washington Post columnist John Feinstein thinks was Henrik Lundqvist's "one mistake" in Game 2 was. Getting beat by a puck his own teammate tipped? Yeah, what a bum. Gotta trade his ass.

Ottawa Senators: Brandon Prust deserves a fine for calling Paul MacLean a walrus hahaha sure okay. Grow up.

Philadelphia Flyers: Do you really need 10 reasons the Flyers missed the playoffs? Here's Nos. 1-1, which is all you need: The defense was terrible. Terrible terrible terrible.

Phoenix Coyotes: Today is Day No. 269 since Jude LaCava of Fox 10 in Arizona said Greg Jamison would have the deal for the Coyotes sewn up within the next five days. And in furtherance of that point, it turns out it really is tough to be a hockey team without an owner.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby is so good at hockey it makes me sick. I love him.

San Jose Sharks: Raffi Torres hasn't tried to hospitalize anyone this year hooray for him.

St. Louis Blues: The Blues missed a lot of open looks in their 1-0 loss to the Kings Saturday. "I thought we were more than anything today unlucky — we were unlucky," said Ken Hitchcock. No kidding. Sometimes you miss 24 square feet of net, sometimes the goalie gives you the puck for a shorthanded empty net wraparound goal in overtime. Funny how it all shakes out.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Bolts owner Jeff Vinik is closing his successful hedge fund. Why? He wants to devote more of his time to being the owner of the Lightning. That's pretty awesome.

Toronto Maple Leafs: This is Phil Kessel's first-ever even-strength goal against the Boston Bruins. Even knowing that is absolutely true, it's still kind of hard to believe.

Vancouver Canucks: Henrik Sedin says the team still believes in itself but you know in the back of his mind he's all, "Yeah but Luongo back there, I mean it's like…"

Washington Capitals: The Caps' recent offensive success has come largely because they've decided to pass more. You know what they say about hockey: You miss 100 percent of the passes you don't make when you have an open look.

Winnipeg Jets: Jets prospect Mark Scheifele is playing extremely well for the Barrie Colts in the OHL Finals, getting a goal and an assist in a 4-2 win over London in Game 1.

Play of the Weekend

I love the work around the net by van Riemsdyk on this goal. Yessiree.

Gold Star Award

Getty ImagesBig ups to Braden Holtby, who's playing his ass off in the playoffs once again this season. Outdueling Henrik Lundqvist is no small feat.

Minus of the Weekend
Getty ImagesYeah I don't know about you guys but I'm starting to think the Red Wings are in real trouble here.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User "Toastman" is feeling it.

Kovalchuk
Gelinas

for

Pacioretty
Markov
1st in2013

Signoff

The vandalism towards my house last night was a hate crime. Somebody hates me.

Ryan Lambert publishes hockey awesomeness almost never over at The Two-Line Pass. Check it out, why don’t you? Or you can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter if you so desire.

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