I want you to think back to the afternoon of April 15. It was the first day of the NHL playoffs, with the opening faceoff just hours away. Do you remember how you felt back then? Calm. Happy. Even peaceful. Look at you. You were so young back then.
And then the playoffs started, and you’ve been filled with rage ever since.
This is what the NHL playoffs do. They sucker you in with the promise of the world’s greatest sport being played by elite teams with win-or-go-home stakes. Then they sideswipe you with one controversy after another, some serious, but most ridiculous. This continues until you’ve spent so much time screaming at your television that it becomes self-aware and starts automatically switching you to something less exciting, like gardening shows, test patterns, and the NBA playoffs.
This year has been no exception. We’re not even done with the conference finals, and there have already been at least 20 controversies in the playoffs. (I say “at least” because the fun thing about this sort of list is that while 20 controversies seem like way too many, I’m sure there are at least a few I missed. I look forward to hearing from irate Blues fans who can’t believe I didn’t mention that faceoff violation call in Game 4.)
It’s probably a good idea to pause for a look at the list now, before we all lose track and/or get committed. So in chronological order, here are 20 of the controversies we’ve witnessed, debated, and severed friendships and family ties over during the 2015 NHL playoffs.
1. Stick and Stone Might Microfracture Your Bone
When: April 15, in Game 1 of the Senators-Canadiens series. The playoffs were roughly an hour old when all hell broke loose. Or, as hockey fans call it, “a slow start.”
What: Midway through the second period, Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban slashed Mark Stone in front of Montreal’s net. The Senators rookie immediately fell to the ice writhing in pain. Subban was ejected; Stone left but returned in time for the power play before missing further action in the game.
That’s the short version; we covered the incident in-depth when it happened. Senators fans saw a vicious, premeditated attempt to injure. Canadiens fans saw a standard front-of-the-net battle gone wrong, made notable mainly by a player embellishing an injury to draw a penalty.
The aftermath: The league saw a five-minute major and nothing more, declining to suspend Subban despite intense lobbying by the Senators, who announced that Stone had suffered a microfracture. After all, Subban is a star defenseman, and those guys just don’t get suspended during the playoffs. (That sound you hear is every Detroit Red Wings fan putting their fist through their monitor.)
2. Chicago’s Six-Pack
When: April 17, in Game 2 of the Hawks-Predators series.
What: In the second period, Patrick Kane scored a goal to tie the game at 2-2. It was a nice little goal, with Brent Seabrook making a great pass and Kane converting on a partial break. Just a great play all around, so I’m not sure why anyone would … uh, wait a second.
The aftermath: The Predators won the game 6-2, so this didn’t end up mattering at all. I just wanted to include it because that picture of the Hawks celebrating cracks me up every time.
3. How Was Bob Hartley’s Lineup Selection? Fine.
When: April 17, at the end of Game 2 of the Flames-Canucks series.
What: Late in a game the Canucks were winning handily, the Flames iced a line that partially consisted of tough guys. A line brawl broke out, during which Deryk Engelland was assessed an instigator penalty for a fight in which he ended up taking on two Canucks at once.
The aftermath: Flames coach Bob Hartley was fined $50,000 for “conduct prejudicial to or against the welfare of the league.” Meanwhile, the automatic suspension that Engelland’s instigator penalty carried was rescinded on review, which was so weird because that never happens.
4. Really, Why Do We Even Have This Rule?
When: April 19, at the end of Game 3 of the Flames-Canucks series.
What: After three games of increasingly bad blood, Canucks forward Alex Burrows got an instigator penalty for starting yet another late-game brawl. Again, this carries an automatic one-game suspension.
The aftermath: You’re never going to believe this, but after reviewing the tape, the league rescinded the suspension. I know, right? This brought the number of automatic instigator suspensions that were eventually rescinded to … all of them. The league rescinds the suspension every single time.
5. Dustin Byfuglien Goes Marshawn Lynch
When: April 21, on an off day with the Jets trailing the Ducks 3-0.
What: Reporters tried to talk to Byfuglien about the series, in which he had been held to no points and delivered a cheap shot to Corey Perry. Instead, Byfuglien channeled Lynch, answering every question with some variation of, “As long as we stick together as a team, we’ll be all right.”
The aftermath: The Jets were eliminated the next day. Apparently they didn’t stick together.
6. Wilson KO’s Visnovsky
When: April 21, during Game 4 of the Islanders-Capitals series.
What: Capitals forward Tom Wilson crushed Islanders defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky behind the net with a shoulder to the face.
He was assessed a two-minute penalty for charging, at which point every NHL fan went, “Oh, right, I remember when there was a rule called ‘charging.’”
The aftermath: Visnovsky didn’t play again after a suspected concussion, thinning the Islanders’ blue line for the rest of a series they’d lose in seven games. Visnovsky’s teammates were furious about the play, calling Wilson “an idiot.” For his part, Wilson wasn’t suspended, although he did fight Anders Lee early in the next game.
7. “Katy Perry”
When: During a Gary Bettman media availability on April 24.
What: Late in regulation of Game 3 of the Ducks-Jets series, a rowdy Winnipeg crowd had serenaded Corey Perry with chants of “Katy Perry.” Some thought it was funny; others saw yet another example of hockey fans using a variation of “you’re a girl” as an insult, the latest in a long line that includes Cindy Crosby, Chrissy Pronger, and the Sedin Sisters. But the situation took on new life when Bettman was asked about it days later and gave a horrifically tone-deaf answer in which he appeared to compare women to kitchen utensils.
The aftermath: Bettman was ripped just about everywhere — some good reads can be found here and here and here — and has yet to address the issue again. And sure, maybe you could shrug off the original chant as being less about sexism than juxtaposing a hockey player with a flaky pop singer — call it the “if his last name had been Bieber” defense. But even then, Bettman’s response was indefensibly awful, not least of all because it sounded like it had never even occurred to him that hockey may have a sexism problem. If that’s true, roughly half of the sport’s potential audience must be wondering how much this league actually wants their business.
8. Senators Score a Goal, Get Shut Out Anyway
When: April 26, as the Senators faced elimination in Game 6 against the Canadiens.
What: Trailing 1-0 midway through the second, the Senators scored the tying goal by banging a rebound past Carey Price. But the goal was disallowed because referee Chris Lee had lost sight of the puck and blown the play dead.
So you’ve got an elimination game, a tying goal that should have counted, and a mistake by a referee that wipes it out. Chaos, right? Except … when you watch the replay, it’s hard not to sympathize with Lee. He was in good position, and the puck just happened to squirt loose in the one spot he couldn’t possibly see it. Neither Price nor anyone else reacted as if the puck were free. So Lee did what the rules say he must do and blew the play dead — clearly before the puck entered the net. In hindsight, this one belongs more in the “terrible luck” category than in the “blown call” pile.
The aftermath: The 1-0 lead held up, as Price made 43 saves for the shutout. A last-second empty-netter made it a 2-0 final, ending the Senators’ season and sending Montreal on to the second round.
9. We Find Out We’ve Been Spelling Micheal Ferland’s Name Wrong
When: April 27, after the Flames had eliminated the Canucks in six.
— Wes Gilbertson (@SUNGilbertson) April 27, 2015
The aftermath: OK, maybe this isn’t technically a controversy, but it probably bothered me more than just about anything else that’s happened in the playoffs. For the record, I’m with this Reddit commenter.
10. Ovechkin’s Hit From Behind
When: April 27, during Game 7 of the Caps-Islanders series.
What: Late in the second period, Alexander Ovechkin drilled New York defenseman Thomas Hickey right in the numbers. There was no call on the play — or pretty much any play in the game, as the refs put the whistles away for 57 minutes before calling one late penalty against the Caps.
The aftermath: The Caps won the game 2-1 to advance. Some fans praised the referees for letting the teams play; others rolled their eyes at the lack of calls. Some even called for Ovechkin to be suspended, but he’s not, because, again, stars don’t get suspended in the playoffs … oh, wait, Red Wings fans are punching things again.
11. Kronwall Finally Gets Nailed
When: April 28, the day after Niklas Kronwall delivered this hit to Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov during Game 6.
What: Kronwall has a long history of delivering these sorts of big hits along the boards, almost all of which were questionable but ultimately deemed clean. But this time the league handed down a one-game suspension that kept him out of the deciding Game 7.
The aftermath: The decision was shocking, if only because this sort of thing is so rare in the NHL — this was the first suspension handed out before a Game 7 since Shayne Corson in 2002.1 You could make a good argument that Kronwall has been throwing dirty hits for a long time and absolutely deserved to finally pay a price for it, although Red Wings fans had to be wondering why this had to be the one the league picked.
For trying to kick a guy in the head during a fight.
The Wings lost 2-0 in Game 7.
12. Backstrom Lances Boyle
When: April 30, in the dying seconds of Game 1 of the Rangers-Capitals series.
What: After seeing Ovechkin get away with it days earlier, Nicklas Backstrom fell under his teammate’s enigmatic influence and rocked Dan Boyle with a vicious hit from behind. Or maybe just a quasi-dirty shove, although that doesn’t fit the narrative quite as well. In either case, Boyle was shaken up, leading to a turnover deep in the Rangers’ zone. The puck squirted to Ovechkin, who fed Joel Ward for the game winner past Henrik Lundqvist just as time expired. Some Rangers admitted to letting up on the play because they expected the referees to call a penalty late in regulation, presumably because this was their first day in the NHL playoffs.
The aftermath: The borderline hit allowed both fan bases to play a rousing game of “find the one freeze-frame that proves my point.”
13. The Lightning Go Over the Line
When: May 1, in double overtime of Game 1 of the Lightning-Canadiens series.
What: Kucherov scored two minutes into the period, giving the Lightning the win and a 1-0 series lead. The goal itself wasn’t controversial, with Kucherov beating Price with a quick shot from the slot. But it was quickly pointed out that officials had missed the Lightning going offside about 10 seconds earlier. It didn’t lead directly to the goal — the Habs briefly gained control of the puck and had a chance to clear — but it was close enough that fans howled.
Nobody seemed to notice at the time, but the Canadiens complained about the mistake after the game. By that point, of course, it was too late.
The aftermath: We all had yet another argument about whether offside should be reviewable or subject to a coach’s challenge.
14. Prust vs. Watson
When: May 3, in the aftermath of Montreal’s 6-2 loss in Game 2 against the Lightning.
What: After a game in which he racked up 31 penalty minutes, got ejected, and threw his elbow pad at the Lightning bench, Montreal forward Brandon Prust teed off on referee Brad Watson. Prust accused Watson of insulting him in a profanity-laced tirade after a first-period penalty.
The aftermath: Prust was fined $5,000 and later apologized. Also, every parent who’s ever heard a 4-year-old offer up an “I swear I wasn’t doing anything wrong the whole time” defense felt a weird sense of déjà vu.
15. The Phantom Goal
When: May 5, late in Game 3 of the Ducks-Flames series.
What: With the Flames desperately needing a win to stay in the series but trailing 3-2, Sam Bennett got a great chance in front but was turned away by Frederik Andersen. Or was he? While nobody seemed to notice in real time, replays appeared to show the puck crossing the line before Andersen kicked it away.
After a lengthy review, during which everyone assumed the play would be overturned and ruled a goal, the referees finally announced the decision: no goal, as there wasn’t conclusive evidence of the puck crossing the line.
The aftermath: After every Flames fan was done having flashbacks to 2004, the game resumed with Calgary still trailing. The Flames eventually tied the game and won in overtime, downgrading this whole mess from five-siren mega-controversy status. We got days of analysis, some of which introduced the hockey world to the concept of “parallax view,” and some of which involved just putting a puck on the ice and filming it.
Then everyone remembered that the Flames had no chance of beating the Ducks, and we all agreed to hope that somebody would take out Perry’s knee before the end of the series.
16. Sorry I Accidentally Made Your Knee Explode
When: May 10, during Game 5 of the Ducks-Flames series.
What: Flames forward Matt Stajan plowed into Perry in what sure looked like one of those “accidental on purpose” collisions. Perry went down holding his leg and limped off the ice, looking pretty much exactly like a guy who just shredded a ligament or two. Everyone was deeply confused about how to feel about a play that’s basically the hockey equivalent of a Care Bear cheap-shotting Voldemort.
The aftermath: After a quick trip to the locker room, Perry returned and eventually scored the overtime winner as the Ducks eliminated the Flames.
17. When Dumb Rules Go Bad
When: May 10, during the dying minutes of Game 6 of the Rangers-Capitals series.
What: With the Rangers facing elimination on the road but clinging to a one-goal lead, forward James Sheppard was called for delay of game after shooting the puck over the glass from his own zone. But it was a blown call, as the puck actually hit the glass on the way out.
The aftermath: The Capitals didn’t score on the power play and the Rangers held on to win the game, winning Game 7 at home three days later. Everyone remembered that the puck-over-glass rule is terrible and we unanimously agreed to get rid of it in the offseason. Please tell me that last part happened.
18. The Guarantee
When: May 10, right after the Rangers-Caps game we just finished talking about.
What: Ovechkin guaranteed a win in Game 7 … kind of. He didn’t actually use the word, but he did say, “We’re going to come back and win this series,” which is close enough to spawn a few days of think pieces and barstool debates over whether Ovechkin has gone too far. To his credit, he didn’t back down or try to claim he was taken out of context, and Caps coach Barry Trotz supported him.
The aftermath: Ovechkin scored the opening goal in Game 7, but the Rangers came back for a 2-1 win. Somewhere, Mark Messier and Joe Namath high-fived.
19. The Head-Butt
When: May 19, during overtime of Game 2 of the Hawks-Ducks series.
What: With the Hawks on a power play, a rebound popped up in the air and Andrew Shaw … well, he did this:
I mean, that was pretty much the greatest thing ever. That goal should have absolutely counted, just on principle. But what does the rulebook say? Nobody knew, because this had never happened before, so we all stood around waiting to find out.
The aftermath: No goal. Apparently you can’t head-butt a flying puck into the net. In 30-plus years of being a hockey fan, I’d never heard of that rule, but it turns out it’s in there. The Blackhawks won the game anyway on some boring goal where they shot the puck into the net with a hockey stick like chumps.
After the season ended, Shaw quit the Blackhawks and formed his own league where header goals are totally legal. It put the NHL out of business within three months.
20. This Space Reserved
When: To be determined. With up to three weeks of hockey left, this list is guaranteed to grow at some point.
What: The mind boggles. The Rangers and Lightning have been remarkably well behaved through their conference final series, so you know they’re saving up for something awful. Shaw still has time to figure out some new way to score a goal that nobody knew was illegal. Maybe the Minnesota Wild, who somehow stayed off our list entirely despite making it to the second round, will reappear at some point in the final and take out both remaining teams with steel folding chairs. Maybe Perry will … well, continuing to exist will probably do it.
The aftermath: You will have very strong opinions, and you will not be shy about letting people hear them. It’s the playoffs, after all. Go hard or go home.