BROOKLYN – Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper was talking about his team’s game Tuesday night and how it’s a great example of why we all love this game so much. And he’s right. But it’s also a pretty good example of why this game infuriates us, too.
We love it because when it’s played like it was in the Lightning’s 5-4 overtime win over the Islanders in Game 3, it embodies everything that makes this game great. It also infuriates us because too many times, the lack of awareness/incompetence of the referees ruins it. What people who think that officials “should let the players decide things” fail to realize is that referees influence the outcome of a game with non-calls, too. And that’s exactly what happened in Game 3.
And it’s a damn shame because this game had everything short of an octopus being thrown on the ice. It had pond hockey, brutal defensive play that led to 10-bell chance after 10-bell chance, brilliant goaltending, blown leads, dramatic goals, a ton of hits, a dash of overtime and a case of irony so incredible that nobody could have possibly sat down and written the script.
Take the OT winner, for example. Prior to the Lightning gaining the zone and Brian Boyle scoring the winner, he leveled Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey with a hit to the head that left Hickey hopelessly out of the play and possibly injured. That was the same Thomas Hickey who knocked Jonathan Drouin out of most of the second period and about half of the third with a thundering hit that also resulted in head contact.
Islanders coach Jack Capuano wasn’t exactly seething after the game, but he wasn’t terribly impressed with the fact there was no penalty called on the play. He might have been more angry, but he likely was saving his vitriol for his own team, which threw away a golden opportunity to take control of the series. He certainly can’t be pleased with the play of his top line of John Tavares between Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, a group that was on the ice for two crucial goals against in the third period, including the game-tying goal with 38.4 seconds remaining.
Capuano couldn’t believe how there was no penalty called on Boyle, who made contact with Hickey’s head with referee Brad Watson turned right in the direction of the play. “It’s a direct shot to the head,” Capuano said. “(Boyle) is probably going to get suspended a game. (Watson) is standing right there. It’s frustrating because it’s right there. The play is right there and he’s looking right at it. I’ve watched it four or five times, maybe more, and it’s just frustrating that it had to end that particular way, with a headshot. I saw the video and the video don’t lie. The referee is there, the hit’s there and maybe he didn’t see it that way. He’s human, too.”
Cooper, as expected had a different view of the hit. “There were what, 70, 80 hits in that game?” Cooper said. (Actually there were 73.) “I would say there were 15 harder than the one Boyle was involved in, and one (on Drouin) that was a really hard hit. To me, that was a mild hit compared to some of the banging that went on in that hockey game.”
It will be cold comfort for the Islanders even if Boyle has to sit out Game 4 because the play and its result can’t be undone. But had Capuano’s team played with any semblance of aggression at times, it would never had gone to overtime. On the tying goal, the Islanders completely collapsed down low, with the hope of shot blocking their way to a win, only to leave most of the dangerous spots on the ice open.
The Lightning, on the other hand, played like a team that went to the Stanley Cup final and learned its lessons well. This is a team that has absorbed body blow after body blow and still manages to come out with wins. The Lightning were outshot 17-9 in the first period and managed to come out tied 1-1. They lost Drouin to a controversial, but clean, hit, only to have Drouin come back and make a brilliant play to set up the tying goal. They’re still missing their best forward (Steven Stamkos) and most experienced defenseman (Anton Stralman), but they continue to find ways to overcome.
Speaking of overcoming, Drouin went to the Lightning dressing room after taking the thunderous hit in the second that left him with a nasty gash on his nose. Cooper said that Drouin went through the concussion protocol not once, but twice. And when he appeared on the bench in the third he declared he was ready to go. For his part, Drouin saw nothing wrong with the Hickey hit.
“I looked at it and it was clean,” Drouin said. “I think (Hickey) just read what I was doing, cutting in the middle, and he saw that and put his shoulder…I don’t hold anything against him. Definitely a big hit.”
Rule 48, the rule that deals with head hits, now puts a lot more onus on the one receiving the hit. Whether that is right or wrong is open to debate, but the rule clearly states now that headshots are not permitted, “where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was unavoidable.” It goes on to say that hits that begin squarely through the body and end up contacting the head are open to interpretation, as are those where, “the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position by assuming a posture that made head contact on an otherwise full body check unavoidable.”
The Hickey hit left a lot of room for interpretation. The Boyle hit, not so much. Not at all, actually.