The Good (and the Bad) of the NHL Playoffs

Drew MillerOther than the Panthers and Devils, who will meet tonight, all of the teams in this year’s NHL playoffs have played a game of their first-round postseason matchups. And just about all of them, probably much to the delight of the NHL and NBC, have been doozies.

On Thursday night, three of four games — Bruins-Capitals, Sharks-Blues, and Coyotes-Blackhawks — went into overtime. (Sharks-Blues ended in a second extra session.) A day before, things were nearly as exciting: The Kings upset the Canucks, the Predators held off the Red Wings, and the highly anticipated Game 1 between the Penguins and the Flyers ended with a come-from-behind 4-3 Philadelphia win.

Playoffs!!!!!!!!!!!

The postseason helps showcase some of the best things about hockey — All the hitting! All the overtime! Such high stakes! But it can also be a time when some of the sport’s more frustrating aspects are on display. It’s only been two days, and already two pretty game-changing goals have been scored thanks to missed whistles by on-ice officials — in addition to a blown call off the ice as well.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins got off to a 3-0 lead on the Flyers in the opening period, it seemed like most predictions that this would be a knock-‘em-down-drag-‘em-out seven-games-and-then-some series underestimated the force of the Penguins. But Flyers veteran Danny Briere converted a stretch pass into a streaking goal midway through the second and added another in the third. When Brayden Schenn scored with less than eight minutes to play in regulation, it was the unlikely game-tying goal.

But the goal that started it all, Briere’s first, shouldn’t even have counted. Linesman Tony Sericolo failed to blow the play dead even though Briere was offside — and not the kind that can only be detected by later Zapruder-style film analysis of shadows and split seconds, but the kind where he was, like, really offside.

(In fairness to the officials, the NBC crew totally missed the call, too.)

After the game, Briere said he didn’t know he was offside, but that he was surprised to have so much space. (I’d like to think that that was some expert trolling right there.) And on Thursday, the league weighed in on the mistake: “There’s no other way to explain it but a missed call,” senior executive VP of hockey operations Colin Campbell told The Canadian Press. “We’re as upset as Pittsburgh, almost.”

On Thursday, after trailing the Chicago Blackhawks 1-0, the Phoenix Coyotes tied things up in the second period when Taylor Pyatt knocked the puck past Corey Crawford from the left side. (The Coyotes would ultimately win in overtime.) This time, it was an uncalled too many men on the ice that immediately preceded the play and was identified by the broadcast crew immediately. (The comment is wonderfully damning, too: “It was just a matter of time, but this was a missed call.”)

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Missed calls happen, of course. Hockey is a fast enough game that it’s almost more alarming that officials are able to get so many wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am moments right. Still, this is a bad precedent to set in the first two nights of the NHL’s “second season,” in large part because it helps with the devolution of a series from respectful and hard-fought (among both the players on ice and their fans) to petty and name-calling and filled with obstinate grudges. In the logic of some NHL fans, it’s now basically fair game to believe the Flyers or Coyotes are somehow favored by the league, or are even outright-if-nebulous “cheaters.”

If the on-ice crews blew some coverage, though, it was off the ice where the NHL made its biggest misstep this week. As the final horn sounded on the Nashville Predators’ win over the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night, All-Star defenseman Shea Weber filed a grievance over something by smashing Henrik Zetterberg’s head right into the boards. (So theatrically blatant was the move that WWE Raw and Smackdown general manager John Laurinaitis tweeted: “Thinking Shea Weber might make good addition to WWE Raw roster with moves like this.”)

Regardless of whether you believe this was a glorious tribute to no-holds-barred old-timey hockey or a disgusting and dangerous maneuver, it’s pretty much exactly what the NHL claims it’s committed to policing — the targeting of the head. The play took place pretty much after the whistle, and while Zetterberg was OK, the force cracked his helmet. Yet when chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan took a look, he opted not to suspend Weber, but rather to fine him $2,500 — about the amount the blueliner earns every time he jumps over the boards.

There’s a legitimate reason the amount was so paltry, it should be noted, which is that under the current-but-expiring CBA the league isn’t allowed to fine a player more than a quarter-K. (Expect this to go up multiple-fold under the next agreement.) But the league erred, I think, in not suspending Weber for a game. Yes, it would have meant sidelining one of the, if not the most marquee players on the Predators roster. And yes, Shanahan is on record as explaining that a game’s suspension in the do-or-die playoffs is equivalent to a much longer disciplinary sentence during the regular season. “It’s a seven-game season each series,” he has said.

The Predators-Red Wings game had already been one that was called so tightly that Detroit coach Mike Babcock railed off on it in a delightfully awkward in-game interview. As soon as it it got to the league offices, though, everything got much more loose.

But if anything, a one-game suspension would have been almost unassailable: to angry Predators fans, the league could explain that for the good of the game it has to get tough on head-targeting maneuvers, particularly when they’re a) retaliatory and b) after the whistle. And to Red Wings fans raging that Weber didn’t get, like, a lifetime ban from the sport, the league could use that “a one-game suspension in the playoffs is like five games in the regular season” logic to seem tough. The league had a chance to make a definitive statement, and instead it opened itself up to a new round of allegations that its disciplinary decisions are inconsistent, star-favoring, and focused more on whether someone did wind up injured than on whether they could have.

The league did, to its credit, suspend the Vancouver Canucks’ Byron Bitz for a pair of games for this hit on L.A.’s Kyle Clifford in Game 1. Still, before the playoffs began, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the Globe and Mail that disciplinary decisions during the postseason would not differ from those during the regular season, and that on the ice “the officiating standard [during the playoffs] is not to slip or change.”

So far, though, that’s been just about the only thing about these NHL playoffs that has not lived up to expectations.

Filed Under: Katie Baker, NHL, NHL Playoffs, Stanley Cup

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes