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Is NHL Just Making Up Rules In The Conference Finals?

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- Sports these days can get a little bit confusing, even for fans who have spent thousands of hours watching and observing them over the course of decades. Rulebooks are hundreds of pages long, and they continue to evolve, as does the implementation of replay reviews. It can all be a bit much.

That being said, hockey fans who tuned in to Game 4 of the the Eastern Conference finals between the Capitals and Lightning on Thursday night likely saw something that they've never seen before.

It came in the middle of the second period, with the game tied at 2-2. Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman whacked T.J. Oshie in the skates as Oshie carried the puck through the Tampa Bay zone. Oshie didn't fall initially, but after a second he did indeed go down, just as Lightning forward Yanni Gourde was reaching his stick in the area of Oshie's skates.

Gourde was sent to the box for a two-minute minor penalty. The game headed to a commercial break. That was that. Or so we thought.

When the broadcast resumed, the officials were on the headsets and looking at a video monitor. What could they possibly have been doing?

Well, it turned out they were communicating with someone who informed them that it was actually Hedman's stick that caused Oshie to go down, not Gourde's stick. At this time, Gourde was sitting in the penalty box. He had been assessed a penalty.

After the conference, the officials retrieved Gourde from the box and told him he was a free man. They then tracked down Hedman and told him that he'd be spending his next two minutes in the sin bin.

This ... would be unprecedented. And it opens a Pandora's box of what-ifs and what-abouts that the NHL is most likely not at all capable of answering.

If this penalty -- a random trip in open ice -- can be reviewed, then what about the countless instances of delay of game penalties being issued for pucks going over glass when the four on-ice have no earthly idea whether or not the puck deflected off the glass before flying into the stands? That's a situation that arises regularly, yet instead of glancing at a simple replay, officials huddle together, pretend they know what happened, and then issue a ruling based on a guess. (Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy lamented this reality after his team gave up a goal while short-handed following a delay of game penalty in Game 3 against Tampa, a penalty which should not have been called.)

And what about missed high-sticking penalties? In this Washington-Tampa Bay series, Oshie had to serve a penalty for high-sticking Hedman, even though it was the puck and not Oshie's stick that contacted Hedman's face. Granted, the on-ice officials shouldn't have even needed replay to see that one, but it might have helped.

But instead of consulting a replay for all of 3 seconds, the officials huddled, pretended they knew what happened, and assessed a minor penalty. Steven Stamkos ended up scoring on the resulting power play for Tampa Bay. Washington did win 6-2, so it didn't have an overwhelming impact. But that's no excuse.

And what about high-sticking penalties where the player actually commits the penalty on himself? That happened in the Boston-Tampa Bay series, and it once again involved Hedman. (How is Hedman involved in all of these?) Right off a faceoff, Hedman was tangled up with Boston forward David Pastrnak. Their sticks came up off the ice, and one of the sticks hit Hedman right in the face. He ended up bloodied, and the officials assessed Pastrnak with a four-minute double-minor for high-sticking.

Again, a quick glance at the replay showed that Pastrnak made no contact at all with Hedman. The Lightning defenseman had simply cut his own face with his own stick blade.

That one is admittedly tougher to see for the referees, neither of whom had a great view. But if the standard is now that penalties are reviewable, then a four-minute penalty assessed to a team trailing by one goal in the third period of a playoff game should definitely warrant a closer look.

The Bruins, of course, also had some legitimate gripes with a couple of significant non-calls in their series vs. Tampa. Brad Marchand was clearly slashed while on a breakaway with a chance to tie Game 2 with just under four minutes remaining in the third period.

That is, by most definitions, an infraction warranting a penalty shot. At the very least, it's two minutes for slashing. But in this case, it was nothing. An official huddle to watch a replay might have helped.

The Bruins, obviously, weren't the only team this postseason with some legitimate officiating gripes. Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau said a missed call on a Josh Morrissey cross-check cost Minnesota a game.

He wasn't wrong.

The officials on the ice somehow missed this obvious infraction, which led to Morrissey actually getting suspended. The Wild might have preferred a power play.

Going back to Boston-Tampa Bay, the pivotal moment of that series came in Game 4, when rookie defenseman carried the puck around the Boston net. Nikita Kucherov took his hand off his stick and hauled McAvoy down to the ice. The turnover immediately led to a Stamkos goal, which tied the game at 3-3. The Lightning eventually won 4-3 in overtime to take a 3-1 series lead, and they closed out the Bruins in Game 5.

Stamkos beats Rask after no-call on Kucherov by SPORTSNET on YouTube

Even with a week to digest that one, Bruins president Cam Neely was still quite perturbed by that non-call.

"I felt like we should be going back for Game 5 tied 2-2," Neely said this week when asked about the non-call on Kucherov. "How they don't make that call. We're up 3-2 with 7 minutes to go. We should be going on the power play -- whether we score or not, it might chew up two minutes of the game, and we have a different mind-set going down to Tampa. It's the non-calls that really frustrated me the most."

Neely's frustration could have been spared if only those officials had decided to take a look at a replay, see the obvious penalty on Kucherov, and then nonchalantly and casually take the Lightning's goal off the board.

That's how this works, right?

Of course, it does not. And that play in particular shows just how messy such situations could get if the NHL does indeed rely on replay in order to enforce and change penalties. That's something the NHL does not allow for in its rulebook or in its replay policies.

Yet in the middle of a tied Game 4 of the conference finals, the officials went ahead and removed Gourde from the box and instead forced Hedman to serve the penalty. A relevant note: Hedman averages 1:55 of short-handed time on ice per game this postseason; Gourde averages a whopping 19 seconds. Going back to the regular season, Hedman averaged 2:35 in shorthanded time on ice during the game, while Gourde averaged 1:04. So, while Washington didn't end up scoring with Hedman in the box, the implications could have been rather significant.

The NHL's argument in this instance would be that ultimately, they got the call right. But that only makes the instances where they didn't get it right and could have easily gotten it right look even worse.

(As an aside: It's high time that the NHL adds replay review to faceoff violations. The only thing more exciting than watching a linesman hold a puck for 15 seconds before kicking out a centerman would be a linesman holding on to a puck for 15 seconds, kicking out a centerman, consulting with his colleagues, skating to center ice, watching a replay review of that centerman doing absolutely nothing, then coasting back to the faceoff circle to invite that centerman back to the dot for a draw. That would be electric. It would be even better if after all of that, the linesman kicked the centerman out again, kicking off the whole chain of events once more and sending the entire sports world into a time warp cyclone where the puck never even gets dropped, from which none of us can escape.)

Officials can either consult replay to get their calls correct, or they can't. Haphazardly applying sporadic rules in the middle of a conference finals is not the type of procedure anybody should expect from a professional sports league.

(Then again, applying new standards in high-stakes playoff games is nothing new in 2018. Perhaps the NHL is just following the NFL's lead.)

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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