TORONTO - The NHL is investigating a scoreboard error that could have what Columbus GM Scott Howson calls an "enormous impact" on playoff races in the Western Conference.
During Wednesday night's game at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the clock briefly stopped in the dying seconds—giving Drew Doughty enough time to score the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"Not good, not acceptable—if (the clock) had run straight through, the game would have been at a tie at that point, would have gone to overtime," commissioner Gary Bettman said on NHL.com. "And maybe L.A. would have won anyway, maybe not. That's not the point. We are taking this very seriously. We're investigating as to how it happened.
"Obviously it's either human error or a technology glitch. We don't know which, but we've already begun investigating and we will get to the bottom of it.
The puck officially crossed the line with less than a second to play in regulation. However, when the Blue Jackets looked at video after the game, they discovered the clock froze for roughly a second just prior to Doughty's goal—meaning time should have expired.
The NHL's video room looked at the play immediately after the goal was scored, but didn't notice that the scoreboard stopped while the Kings were buzzing around the net.
"We didn't even look to go back and say 'OK, did something happen (with the clock)?'" Colin Campbell, the NHL's senior executive vice-president of hockey operations, said Thursday morning. "When it crosses the line (and) you review it, you back the puck out and you see what the clock was. And the clock was 0.4 (seconds).
"And then after the game, minutes after the game, we see (it and say) 'Holy cow.'"
Campbell confirmed that the goal shouldn't have counted and said the league would conduct an investigation to determine what caused the error.
"You ask some tough questions," he said. "You've got to ask every question."
The result of the game is expected to stand.
"Now I know lots of people are going to say, 'How can you have a mistake?'" said Bettman. "Well, unfortunately or fortunately, our game is full of mistakes—by players, by coaches and occasionally by officials—and on some levels it's no different than if a guy makes a bad penalty call, puts a team on the power play and they score the winning goal. It happens.
"We don't like when it happens and our job is to minimize mistakes. We don't want any, but obviously when you have a human element in any aspect of the game you're going to have it."
In the wake of the incident, Kings GM Dean Lombardi claimed the clock was functioning as it should and that the pause occurred while it recalibrated to ensure the period was exactly 20 minutes long.
"That is not an opinion—that is science—amazing device quite frankly," Lombardi told the Los Angeles Times and ESPN.com.
The Blue Jackets were upset by an incident that appeared to cost them at least one point in the standings.
Even though the team boasts the NHL's worst record, Columbus GM Howson wrote in a blog post that the unjust result "matters to our players, to our coaches, every person in our organization and our fans."
"We will never know if we should have had one point or two points in the standings. What we do know is that we should not have had zero," Howson wrote. "Anyone who has competed at a high level of sports knows that when you put everything into a game, the result matters. And to have the result altered unfairly stings."
There's also the question of what it might mean for teams battling the Kings for a playoff position in the Western Conference. Entering play Thursday, Los Angeles sat seventh in the conference—five points up on eighth-place Minnesota and six points ahead of Dallas and Calgary.
The Kings were also just two points behind San Jose for the lead in the Pacific Division.
"We will never know if the Kings would have got the extra point in overtime or shootout, but they may not have," wrote Howson. "This extra point in the standings could have an enormous impact both competitively and economically. What if the Kings make the playoffs by one point or gain home ice advantage by one point?
"We could be talking about a team not making the playoffs and missing out on millions of dollars in playoff gates."
The Flames chose to take the high road. General manager Jay Feaster noted that there's little the league could do to correct such a mistake.
"Rather than crying over what happened in a game in which we did not take part, our time and energies are devoted to our own team and doing everything we can to win the games we play and in so doing qualify for the post-season," Feaster said in a statement. "We sincerely believe that is a much better and more efficient use of our time and effort."
Campbell said he can't recall a similar situation during his 14 years of working for the NHL.