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Guess They're Calling Penalties In The Playoffs, Eh?

Game 1 between Tampa Bay and Toronto featured a parade to the sin bin, so the standard was set by the referees early.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2022 playoffs, a big question on the minds of many was about the standard of officiating during the most crucial time of year. Last season, Edmonton's Connor McDavid somehow didn't draw a single penalty in the Oilers' first-round loss to Winnipeg, despite being the fastest and most dangerous offensive player in the world.

And while commissioner Gary Bettman said on the eve of this year's post-season that statistically the playoffs are not more lax than the regular season, there has long been a feeling in the hockey world that the refs put the whistles away when the games matter the most.

But if the first night of action was any indication, teams shouldn't expect to get away with attempted murder during the 2022 tournament.

The Oilers themselves took two penalties in the third period of what would be an eventual Game 1 loss to Los Angeles and each team had four power plays in the 4-3 Kings win. But to really get a sense of how the referees set a tone, you have to go to Toronto, where the Maple Leafs blew out Tampa Bay 5-0 in a game that could have been very different if the Bolts had taken advantage of their special teams opportunities.

The Leafs took two penalties in the first 10 minutes of the game, the second of which was a five-minute major assessed to Kyle Clifford for boarding. That could have been the game right there but Toronto ended up the aggressor on the Clifford PK, picking pucks off of Tampa Bay constantly for a number of dangerous shorthanded rushes.

"It was probably a big momentum swing early on," said Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos. "We had a couple power plays - obviously the five-minute one - and some plays that were clicking the last stretch of the season were hitting a stick or hitting a skate. But at the same time, they did a good job of executing on the PK early and they gained momentum. It could have been a really different game if we had scored early on, so that was a missed opportunity."

From then on, it was a parade to the box that favored neither squad, beginning with a silly cross-checking penalty by the Lightning's Nikita Kucherov. All told, the teams traded power plays from midway through the first period and all the way through the second. Toronto capitalized with a power play goal and a shorthanded marker; Tampa Bay did not.

"It clearly didn't help," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. "I'll tip our cap to our power play of the past few weeks; it's been dominant. When we let seven minutes of power play time slide there and, not only not do anything with it, but give them chance after chance, probably a bit of frustration set in there that we didn't need to put on ourselves. When you're used to going on the power play and then going to center ice after you scored, at some point maybe we thought it was a right, that it was just going to happen again. And Toronto had other ideas."

Overall, there were 11 power plays in the game. The fact that cross-checking and holding were called multiple times should give both teams pause for reflection as the series goes on, because it was clear in Game 1 that the refs weren't letting anything go.

"There's probably a little too much made of it - I heard the word 'violent' thrown around earlier (yesterday); I mean, come on - maybe that gets in guys' ears to keep control of the series, a series that hadn't even started yet. But there were dumb penalties taken both ways. Both teams were dumb and the refs called them. It wasn't their fault, they were calling what was right in front of them."

And to be honest, that's what you want: a holding call in the playoffs being the same holding call an official would have made in December. If the players know what to expect, they will adjust accordingly and we'll be able to see the best talents - Stamkos, Kucherov, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner among others - excel to the best of their abilities.

As for controlling the temperature of the series, calling minor penalties did not have the desired effect in Game 1 as a vicious brawl broke out in the third period, one that saw Tampa Bay tough guy Patrick Maroon jump Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly, followed by Rielly bloodletting Lightning blueliner Jan Rutta amidst a number of other skirmishes.

So we've got ourselves some bad blood already in the series - something we also love to see when the games matter the most - but if Tampa Bay wants to go for its third straight Stanley Cup title, the Bolts will have to do more than just capitalize on their power plays: the team was very sloppy with the puck in Game 1 and couldn't handle Toronto's speed. They know a reset is needed for Game 2.

"It's something we talk about a lot: playing well when the puck is on our stick and being in structure when it's not," said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. "We definitely need to get our pace back here and be on top of them more."

As for the Maple Leafs, they would do well not to give the Lightning a chance to get that power play back on track, while Tampa Bay can't afford to put Toronto's top-ranked PP unit on the ice any more than necessary.

After all the third-period chaos, the refs will likely be watching these two teams even closer as the series continues - and the whistles were already well-lubricated in Game 1.

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