BOSTON — Just as Boston Bruins President Cam Neely chucked his water bottle against the wall of his press box suite, fans at TD Garden littered the ice with yellow towels in a similar statement of displeasure with the referees. The St. Louis Blues had just taken a two-goal lead in the third period of a pivotal Game 5 in the Stanley Cup Final, and it was a noncall in the sequence leading directly to the goal that has again ignited gripes about the NHL’s officiating during these playoffs.
As Bruins forward Noel Acciari was playing the puck along the boards, Blues center Tyler Bozak attempted to swipe the puck away from him, extending his leg and stick. He took Acciari’s legs out in the process, a trip that referee Kelly Sutherland didn’t whistle. Acciari was still down on the ice as St. Louis celebrated a goal, David Perron’s game-winning tally.
Though players from both teams were diplomatic after the game, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy’s remarks were pointed, making reference to the multiple officiating blunders this postseason — and not just against his team — in what’s become a major issue for the league. Another incident that wasn’t penalized on the ice, St. Louis’s Ivan Barbashev’s high hit on Boston’s Marcus Johansson — warranted a hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety for an illegal check to the head.
“The National Hockey League is getting a black eye with their officiating in these playoffs, and there’s another one that’s going to be talked about,” Cassidy said.
Even before Thursday night’s incident with Acciari, the league was already answering for two blown calls earlier in the postseason. In the third period of Game 7 between the Vegas Golden Knights and the San Jose Sharks in the first round, Cody Eakin was assessed a five-minute major for cross-checking San Jose’s Joe Pavelski, who suffered a concussion after his head hit the ice on the play. But while the result was unfortunate, the action itself wasn’t worthy of a major penalty, and the NHL later issued an apology to Vegas. The Sharks scored four goals during the five-minute power play, suddenly turning a three-goal deficit into a one-goal lead. The Golden Knights tied it to force overtime, but San Jose prevailed, sparking calls for referees to be able to review major penalties.
Then in overtime of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals between the Sharks and Blues, San Jose’s Timo Meier batted the puck with his glove, a hand pass that four officials missed, and it resulted in the game-winning goal. A hand pass is not subject to review, so the goal stood.
As for Bozak’s uncalled trip on Acciari, NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom told a pool reporter, “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.”
“You can see the official has a clear view of it, a crystal clear view,” NBC Sports analyst Mike Milbury said on the broadcast. “There is nothing to impede his view of the trip, and he does have a clean trip. This is what he saw, no call, and seconds after that the puck is in the back of the Boston net. ... That’s just unforgivable and I don’t know where Kelly Sutherland lines up again but it shouldn’t be refereeing another Stanley Cup Final game.”
The NHL has kept its officials accountable this postseason, but that could also be contributing to the problem. Dan O’Halloran is one of the league’s most experienced officials and hadn’t missed a conference finals in more than a decade, but after he assessed Eakin the controversial major penalty in Game 7 between Vegas and San Jose, he didn’t work the rest of the playoffs. The same thing happened with Marc Joannette and Dan O’Rourke after the missed hand pass in the Western Conference finals.
“The problem with the finals right now isn’t the quality of the officiating, it’s the fact that three of the top officials — two for political reasons with the hand pass and the major penalty — have been sent home and the top referee, Wes McCauley, is injured,” said former NHL referee Paul Stewart, adding that a coach would be criticized if he benched a veteran player for the rest of the playoffs after one mistake. Stewart said going “either all in or all out” on video replay would help officials; just goaltender interference and offsides is reviewable now.
“My feeling hasn’t changed,” Cassidy told reporters on Friday. “I feel it was a missed call that impacted the game, unfortunately in a negative way for us. ... But our play has to define us on the ice, not a noncall, call, whatever.”