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RGM81
05-22-2016, 08:00 PM
Upon Further Review...
by Richard McAdam (RGM81)

When the NHL introduced the coach’s challenge at the June 2015 Board of Governors meetings, many fans and experts believed that the most common challenge would come as a result of perceived goaltender interference preventing the goalie from being able to make the save. Indeed, it was little surprising when the first successful challenge came on the very first night of the 2015-16 season involving contact between Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier and Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec. Throughout the season, Plekanec’s teammate Brendan Gallagher was flagged on a number of occasions for goalie contact, usually resulting in a goal scored coming off the board.

While the scope of the coach’s challenge did include plays that were potentially offside, it was not expected that this aspect of the review process would emerge to the forefront in the playoffs. Throughout the opening days of first round there were several challenges on offside plays that would go on to have a significant effect on the outcome of the game. In Game 2 of the Blues-Blackhawks series, at a critical juncture of the 3rd period Vladimir Tarasenko scored what appeared to be the game’s tying goal. Not so fast. On the play, a pass to Blues forward Jori Lehtera was determined to have been offside by mere centimetres. The breakdown of the play can be seen on the NHL website (https://www.nhl.com/news/coachs-challenge-chi--stl---1214-of-the-third-period/c-280329496?tid=277729160) but as you can see below, the puck has not crossed the blue line while Lehtera’s right leg is in the offensive zone and his left skate is off the ice. By the letter of the rules, he is offside.

https://www.sportscardforum.com/images/imported/2016/05/2120.jpg

The impact of his play was enormous: a tying goal was disallowed, and mere minutes later on a play that was challenged for goalie interference, a good goal was scored by the Blackhawks that made the score 3-1. Chicago would win the game by a 3-2 margin, leaving many Blues fans incensed over how miniscule the margin of victory was and that it was determined by the Toronto war room.

In all, there were six coach’s challenges initiated in the first round of the playoffs. Four of those challenges resulted in a goal being disallowed, one play was upheld, and another was deemed inconclusive to overturn the call on the ice of a good goal. Those four calls each affected the outcome of the respective game to different degrees—and arguably the momentum and flow of the series. A disallowed Rangers goal in the first period of Game 3 of the Rangers-Penguins series kept the game at 0-0, which Pittsburgh would go on to win 3-1 to take a 2-1 series lead en route to winning the series in 5 games. In the Panthers-Islanders series, an Aaron Ekblad goal was overturned in Game 3 that would have made the score 3-0 for Florida. Instead, the score remained 2-0 until the Islanders staged a comeback that resulted in a 4-3 overtime victory to seize the momentum in that series, which they would win in 6 games. Tampa Bay was largely unaffected by a challenge in Game 1 of their series against Detroit that took a goal off the board. The call discussed above in the Blues-Blackhawks series was a big swing for Chicago in the short-term, but they were ultimately eliminated in 7 games to end their reign as Stanley Cup Champions.

The impact of those plays had a number of sports writers calling foul. Cam Cole of the Toronto Sun went so far with the hysteria about these calls that he stated the NHL should eliminate the coach’s challenge (http://www.torontosun.com/2016/04/18/plenty-of-playoff-proof-coachs-challenge-must-go) starting next season because “the can of worms it has opened isn’t worth the cost. The proliferation of opportunities for managers to cause long delays over minute rules interpretations has many participants wishing they could get a mulligan on the unblinking eye of Big Brother.” Tim Wharnsby at CBC was a little more muted (http://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/nhl/wharnsby/nhl-coaches-challenges-1.3541139), nonetheless reflecting that the lengthy process wasn’t good for the game, stating, “The entertainment and drama has been stunted early in this post-season.”

Where Wharnsby is most ominous and possible prescient is in his recounting of the infamous Brett Hull goal in 1999 that won the Stanley Cup for the Dallas Stars. Hull’s foot was in the crease, a violation of the rules at the time, but there was no overturning of the overtime game-winner. Though something like that cannot happen due to a coach’s challenge—in the final minute of the third period and all of overtime, the Situation Room in Toronto is responsible for all goal reviews—“there is a real possibility that something contentious could happen at the most critical time” involving an offside call or other challenge, says Wharnsby.

The stakes are always increasing as we get deeper into the playoffs. The second round concluded with only a single overturned goal due to an offside ruling, but it happened to be in Game 7 of the Stars-Blues series. Early in the game, the Blues had a 1-0 lead when Tarasenko crossed the blue line a hair line too quickly and put himself offside. A two-goal cushion was temporarily denied upon further review after Dallas successfully challenged the play. The Blues would not be denied on that night, as they blew the score open in the second period as they cruised to victory. It was just a temporary setback for a team that is still playing in the Conference Finals, but the impact could have been much greater.

Hockey is a very fast game and these plays happen in an instant. While determining goaltender interference can often be a cut-and-dry judgment call, expecting the on-ice officials to be 100% correct 100% of the time when there are multiple players crossing the blue line is an impossible standard. The NHL was correct to introduce the expanded video review opportunities to include offside evaluations. But is Cam Cole correct when he says that the coach’s challenge aspect of it creates more problems than it’s worth? I do not believe so.

Nobody wants there to be controversy about the outcome of an important game, especially in the playoffs when the Stanley Cup is on the line. If there is even a sliver of doubt as to the legitimacy of a goal scored, the NHL has an obligation to the participating teams to remove it, and the coaches of the teams involved should have the right to be able to question the officials’ calls on the ice in those situations. The Brett Hull foot in the crease and the contested Martin Gelinas non-goal in Game 6 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals are lingering items in the minds of fans, players, and the NHL. With all the technology that is available today, the League owes it to all of its stakeholders to ensure that calls on the ice are correct, or corrected. Taking three minutes to evaluate a close call can have an economic impact of literally millions of dollars, to say nothing of the integrity of the game itself. For that reason, we will continue to hear the phrase “upon further review...” in the referee’s lexicon for many years to come.

Johnny Appleseed
05-27-2016, 10:46 PM
Any time you take a step forward in the process of getting the call right, there are kinks to be worked out and hot takes to be had. The biggest one this year concerns offside calls, where there are currently no stationary cameras along the blue line in any arena (that I know of). If you're going to allow offside calls to be reviewed, you have to give the referees proper equipment to review the call.

For me, two rules need to be adjusted long before recalling the coaches challenge: the puck over glass delay of game (should be enforced as an icing call) and the high-stick rules for a goal (either four feet high for all plays as well or shoulder height for all plays and goals).