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"Ballsy" Calls in OT, or How Sunday's Overtime Demonstrates What's Wrong With Playoff Officiating

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Letting a circumstance dictate the call is the root of the problem, and the fact that former officials seem to think this is a strength is very worrying.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

One of the great unwritten rules of the playoffs is that no one wants the referees to decide the game.

Well I've got bad news for you. No matter what a referee does, call or non-call, they decide the game in several ways. That said, they only have an undue impact when they decide to make certain calls and not others because of their interpretation of the situation, which is what happened in Sunday's Dallas Stars overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues.

(Before we go on, a caveat - the calls and non-calls in overtime were not the sole, or even major, cause of the Stars loss. There are plenty of other fixable mistakes the team should have addressed to be out of a position where calls affected the game. That said, the problems with the officiating were notable and expose a larger problem in the culture of NHL playoff refereeing that deserves discussion in it's own right.)

How did the referees make an undue impact? Let's start with the butterfly theory of marginal calls and non-calls. Refs only want to make them in situations that lead directly to scoring chances. That's an understandable instinct. Why call a 60-40 hook if it doesn't change the balance of things? Better to let the players decide.

But the problem is a non-call (that would have been called on a scoring-chance play) does change the balance of things, and that was demonstrated in a five-second span of Sunday's overtime. The referees didn't call a 70-30 hook that caused Radek Faksa to make a bouncing, rather than flat saucer, pass. See screenshot evidence here:

Faksa hook

The hook actually happened twice - the second instance is the one in the screenshot and the one that caused the fluttering pass.

That bouncing puck took a longer time to get to Ales Hemsky, allowing an out-of-position Jay Bouwmeester (who had been sucked toward center by Faksa) more time to recover his position. It also forced Hemsky, and thus the whole play, to slow up before it got to the blueline, causing Antoine Roussel to have to walk the line for longer and collide with a puck-staring Bouwmeester.

That collision took Bouwmeester out of the play and allowed Hemsky and Faksa to come in 2-on-1, which then got referee Brad Watson to make that 70-30 (and more gray area within the rule itself than a hook) interference call. And that interference call led to a stinger to Alex Goligoski, which exacerbated Colton Sceviour getting caught puck staring rather than realizing the situation had become essentially a 5-on-3.

It all counts, and in this case it's all directly connected to that original non-call. Which is why Tweets like this from former NHL referees, in reference to the non-call on Faksa, are concerning:

This type of logic demonstrates both a lack of knowledge of the play (Faksa's hook-affected pass led directly to the offensive blue line, after all) and a problematic lack of understanding of how a series of events has cascading effects. It's especially concerning coming from someone who should know how non-calls are as impactful as calls.

Or, if we go back further, it ignores that calls were also let go in the Blues attacking zone (again, mere seconds before the Roussel call). This particular play involved Paul Stastny's stick on John Klingberg about 15 seconds before the penalty:

Klingberg - Statsny 2

Klingberg - Stastny 3

I'd say that's pretty close to the Blues attacking goal, wouldn't you? Closer, in fact, than the interference call. And yet this was let go, likely because the Blues didn't immediately collect the puck and fire it on net. They did, however, keep possession and would have had a good scoring chance opportunity if not for a bobble at the blue line. It changed the course of the possession and allowed St. Louis a longer chance that they didn't capitalize on.

Plus we can butterfly effect again, and say that without the trip, perhaps Klingberg gets the puck first and up the near wall and the entire transition play that leads to the Blues goal doesn't happen. It's a slightly less direct line, but it's still there.

So what Fraser appears to be saying is that the only good calls in overtime are ones that directly involve the creation or removal of a scoring chance, that a referee has to consider the aftermath of an action before raising his arm. That's a problem. Not only does that lead to issues with the players, who may feel like a certain action has been allowed 10 times that game already and is therefore legal, but it also shows a lack of awareness of the cause-and-effect nature of other types of very obvious penalties.

And that leads to the point of view that started this whole diatribe, this incredible myopic Tweet from, again, Kerry Fraser:

So what he seems to be saying is that a call on a play with an obvious detrimental outcome for a team defending in their own zone is courageous and always appropriate. Now, he obviously doesn't think it's always appropriate, or he would have called out the missed trip on Stastny, and I wrote 1,000 words on the gray areas of the interference rule itself yesterday, so let's just focus on the ballsy part.

It is not ballsy to expect players to be psychic about how the play will develop, to have one standard of calls for plays that don't seem to lead directly to scoring chances and another for ones that do. In fact, that is a problem with game management as players do not and cannot have a clear idea of where the call level is.

It is not ballsy to make a call based mostly on location. When a former official is endorsing the idea that a hook around the defensive blue line, even a play directly in offensive transition, is somehow less worthy of two minutes than interference at the offensive blue line, that sends a message that the rules only matter when the official says it does.

It is not ballsy to call based on outcome rather than infraction. In fact that's cowardly, not courageous. It shows an official doesn't have courage to call what he sees and needs to wait for some sort of fallout (which may or may not be related to the actual scale of what happened, given the players' tendency toward embellishment).

What is ballsy is to make the call based on only what happened, wherever it happened on the ice, and on a consistent standard of infraction that is applied throughout the game and situations. Something that is a penalty 10 minutes into the first should be a penalty 10 minutes into overtime, and something let go at the defensive blue line should be let go at the offensive blue line.

The way an NHL referee, or a referee in any sport, makes the best possible and least biasing impact on a game is to establish a call level and stick to it through every situation and time.

it takes true courage, or as Kerry Fraser puts it, balls to do what you do in every circumstance. It shows a lack of them to let the circumstance dictate the call.