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Officiating is hijacking an otherwise entertaining Stanley Cup final

A non-call led to the game-winning goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, and post-game, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said the NHL is "getting a black eye with their officiating in the playoffs."

BOSTON – The NHL does not allow its on-ice officials to comment on calls or non-calls, so after Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, referee Kelly Sutherland was as silent post-game as he was at 10:36 of the third period when, for reasons only he can explain, he failed to put the whistle to his lips and call an obvious penalty that transpired 10 feet in front of him directly in his line of vision.

But Stephen Walkom, the NHL’s director of officiating, was asked to comment by a Professional Hockey Writers’ Association pool reporter on the non-call and here is what he had to say: “We don’t make comments on judgment calls within games. There are hundreds of judgment calls in every game. The official on the play, he viewed it and he didn’t view it as a penalty at the time.”

This is the same league, however, that is more than happy to comment on, and apologize for, blown calls that are actually made, they way it did to the Vegas Golden Knights for the major penalty referees called in Game 7 that was a major factor in deciding that first-round series. It was a call that cost the Golden Knights the chance to go to the second round of the playoffs and millions of dollars in revenues.

OK, got it. We’ll comment on blown calls, but not non-calls. That is so, so NHL. This is a league that is obsessed with its officials not determining the outcome of games, so much so that its directions to them actually do determine the outcomes of games, and in this case might actually be major factor in deciding who wins the Stanley Cup. It would be very interesting to check with Gary Bettman after Game 5 of the final to see if his head was about to explode, which was the state of mind he was in when all officials missed a hand pass that led to an overtime goal in Game 3 of the Western Conference final.

Listen, your trusty correspondent would love nothing better than to be talking about how the St. Louis Blues are on the verge of ending more than five decades of frustration with one victory between them and the Stanley Cup. Or how rookie goalie Jordan Binnington is evoking memories of Ron Hextall and Ken Dryden. Or how gutsy this Blues team is. But the NHL often takes that narrative away and this is one of those times.

For example, consider what Walkom said. He basically admitted that Sutherland saw the infraction and didn’t view it as a penalty. That’s hugely different from not seeing an infraction, which is a human error and far more excusable. But this is not an error. This is a conscious decision. At best it was a trip, at worst it was a slew-foot and it directly led to the game-winning goal. Not only did the Blues get away with an obvious infraction, they essentially outmanned the Bruins because Noel Acciari couldn’t get back into the play. Even Tyler Bozak himself looked toward Sutherland expecting a call. The NHL was sharp enough, however, to have its concussion spotter take Acciari out of the game to enter concussion protocol, so there’s that.

Not that this had to happen in order for the NHL to fix this, but it’s absolutely imperative the league does something to stop these embarrassments from happening. In 2004-05, it had a full season to save the NHL from drowning in obstruction infractions and in the summer of 2019, it faces a challenge every bit as daunting and crucial. The officiating has been nothing short of dismal.

The league finds itself at a crossroads and faces a major decision here. The referees certainly deserve their share of the blame, but so does a hockey operations department that is filled with former players, many of them tough guys, who direct them to look the other way on calls they believe are marginal and protects and enables them by not making them accountable for the calls they make. There are a host of options available to the league and none of them will ever be perfect, but if the league sits on its hands on this one and does nothing to either improve its officials or review their calls, it will be an even more egregious abdication of responsibility than we’re seeing right now.

It is time for NHL owners to go over the heads of hockey operations and the competition committee and whatever other obstacle stands in its way to make these changes. Otherwise, why would a team bother spending to the salary cap to build a skilled team when this is the way the game is going to be managed when the stage is biggest, the spotlight brightest and the most is on the line?

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, of course, was livid with the development. It should be noted that St. Louis coach Craig Berube did not come out unprovoked and attack the officiating after his team gave up four power-play goals in Game 3, but he did respond to a question about it. And that, Cassidy believes, created the environment we’re seeing now.

“I sat here two days ago or whatever it was and I said I believe these officials are at this level because they earned the right to be here and you should be getting the best,” Cassidy said. “The narrative changed after Game 3, there was a complaint or whatever put forth by the opposition and it just seemed to change everything. I mean, this has happened and I’m a fan of the game, this is the National Hockey League and they’re getting a black eye with their officiating in the playoffs and here’s another thing that’s going to be talked about. It was egregious.”

It’s very difficult to disagree with a single syllable Cassidy said after the game. Sometimes officiating is just bad and it really doesn’t have an effect on the game. Others, it leads directly to an unfortunate result. Game 5 was the latter and shame on the NHL if it doesn’t do something to minimize these embarrassments in future Stanley Cup finals.

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