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Playoff Stew: Checking to the Head & The Replay Crutch

May 8, 2019, 2:35 AM ET [5 Comments]
Paul Stewart
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I believe the NHL got it right to suspend Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes as a result of the check to the head he delivered to Columbus' Josh Anderson in the second period of Game 6 on Monday. It was a reckless hit severe enough to merit supplementary discipline.

As for the call on the ice, people have asked why only a minor penalty was assessed rather than a major and a game misconduct. If you look at Rule 48 of the NHL Rule Book, you will find the answer. The Rule Book specifically states that the only allowable calls for a check to the head are a minor or a match penalty. Majors and game misconducts are expressly not permitted. See below:




For what it's worth, I think there should be the capacity in Rule 48 to issue a major and a game misconduct, which are different from a match penalty despite the same basic result (player is kicked out of the game, and there is a five-minute power play). The threshold for a match penalty is when there is deliberate intent to injure, whereas a major and game would be appropriate for a reckless hit where there is not clear-cut intent to injure.

When a match penalty is issued, in addition to requiring a report to the league office for potential supplementary discipline, it carries an automatic subsequent review. The NHL can opt to review any hit regardless (even if there is no penalty called on the play, and straight up through a minor, major and/or game misconduct). The latter was the case here.

In watching the hit at full speed, there is not what I would consider deliberate intent to injure. The initial, but not primary, point of contact was the upper chest and then the primary point as he drove through was the head: reckless, avoidable and executed poorly -- for which the onus is on McAvoy -- but not premeditated head hunting as I saw it.

However, that decision is at the judgment of the referee. If Rule 48.5 for a match penalty had been invoked, I would not have had any problem with it. It all comes down to personal judgment call by the guys we pay to judge: Is the soup too salty? I may say no, you may say yes. Even if we're both agreed that it is or isn't, a third party may feel differently.

One other thing: D-men should learn to angle better. Aim for the lower hand on the stick puts your body in front of the puck carriers body. He runs into your back but more importantly, you now have the puck in front of you and your back is in his face. The D man can now grab the puck and own it or wing it away to a teammate round the boards. There’s contact but instead of a devastating hit which serves no purpose, you have the puck which is what the purpose of a check should be about in the first place. It’s like deflection shooting in a WW II fighter plane. You lead your opponent and he runs into the shot. In this case you lead by going for the bottom hand. When you do that he comes into you and you avoid a head hit accidental or deliberate.

Even if the McAvoy hit was not in the match penalty category -- if it were, I'd have argued for a lengthier suspension that just Game 1 on the supplemental discipline side -- it most certainly was worthy of DOPS getting involved.

Was one game truly enough, though? Anderson returned to the game, so there was a bit of "discipline by outcome" handed out. One could argue that it doesn't matter to a human brain whether it gets jarred in a preseason game, game 25 of the regular season or Game 6 of a conference semifinal and that an identical hit and result might have gotten two games for a first-time offender were it not the playoffs but that's a different debate for another day.

Earlier in the series, in Game 3, Boston's Jake Debrusk scored a goal that I'd also like to discuss today. It wasn't the goal itself but how the play unfolded from an officiating standpoint. This is a perfect example of two of my biggest pet peeves in officiating: Poor positioning by the R1 (the ref closest to the play) and the "video crutch" mentality.

First, let's look at the play. Most of the subsequent discussion was on whether the puck entered the net before the referee actually blew the whistle -- or decided to blow the whistle -- which turned out to be the case through a sheer stroke of good fortune. Otherwise, a legitimate goal would not have counted. But I don't want to focus here on the topic of intent to blow the whistle. Instead, watch where the referee is positioned and when he finally gets to where he can see the puck. (Note: Go to 2:26 of the video for the start of the sequence.)



I will repeat my mantra here: The money is at the net! Go to the net!

It is sheer stubbornness by the NHL that it does not change how its officials are coached to position themselves. While the old-school method is not 100 percent fail-safe, it results in far fewer instances in which sight is lost of the puck and whistles are blown prematurely.

Ah but, "wasn't the call fixed in replay? Wasn't the right call eventually reached?"

Yes, in this case, the right call was made. But that was solely due to the luck of a continuation play with the puck in motion going over the goal line ahead of the decision to blow play dead. Otherwise, the instruction would be disallow the goal for coming after the whistle.

What happened before the right call was finally reached? A lengthy delay that, even in its own right, was not guaranteed to come to the correct conclusion. The delay for replay would not have necessary in the first place if the referee was in ideal position to see the puck as the play happened. The Bruins would have celebrated briefly, and the game would have resumed right away.

THAT is how hockey is supposed to be, at least as I see it. To err is human, and there is a place for replay. But to overrely on the technology chips to "fix calls" chips away at the mindset that officials need to have: Get the call right in the first place, as if there is no replay.

How do you get the call right in the first place? Skate to where you need to skate to see what you need to see. Don't be too hasty in blowing the whistle (we've all done that, but take an extra split second if you need to). Then judge.

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A Class of 2018 inductee to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Visit Paul's official website, YaWannaGo.com
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