Make the call

Zero.

The amount of goals that Tampa Bay scored in Game 7 of the ECF. More significantly, the number of penalties called in the entire game.

I don’t think anyone could deny the excitement factor of that game: there were big hits, good saves, good chances, great defensive plays, lots of sacrificing the body, and one player showing us why hockey players are total badasses and why we love the game. But the final was 1-0; only one goal was scored all game. Yet it was an exciting match. In what sport can you have 1 score and have it be one of the most exciting games of the playoffs?

A 2-0, 3-0, or 7-0 football game? The game needs offense and scoring. Soccer? 1-0 is pretty much the final of every game that doesn’t result in a tie. But more importantly, it’s soccer. Baseball? I suppose you could have a great pitchers duel that ends 1-0, but the sport lacks action as it is, I can’t see a nearly-scoreless game having a lot of excitement factor. Lacrosse? Again, the game needs scoring. Basketball? Forget about it.

The great thing about hockey is that it really doesn’t matter what the final score is, you can have a very exciting game as long as it’s played right (I’m looking at you, Jacques Lemaire and the ’95-’01 New Jersey Devils). If the game has flow, both with the style of play and amount of stoppages, the actions keeps you in your seat. But what’s a great way to ruin flow?

Penalties. And not the fighting majors or matching roughing minors, it’s the little hooks, holds and trips that have been made so popular since the lockout. On one side, it was a good idea by the league to call the infractions that slow a player up; why should a defender be rewarded for bending the rules to slow up their check instead of doing it with skill? But on the other side, do all the little taps need to be called? Both the whistles and nature of the powerplay slow the game down.

It’s gotten to the point where when we see a game with very few or no penalties called in a game, we, typically, automatically assume that the refs did a good job, because they “let the boys play” or didn’t screw a team over with a bad call. When lots of calls are made, we usually assume the refs did a poor job and can usually pinpoint one call that “cost a team the game” or altered the momentum enough to change the game. “Just let them play!” we will shout at the TV after our local boys get “hosed” by a questionable hooking penalty where, even in the replay, is hard to tell if the stick actually touched a player.

Not a single call was made in tonight’s game, and it seems like that’s enough for everyone to leave the refs alone; they didn’t make that call that all the critics and fans are going to question and think determined the outcome of the game. They’re off the hook, a non-factor. But can’t it be argued that the lack of calls can be just as influential as determining the outcome of a game? It’s easy to analyze what penalties the refs called; there are replays, the announcers will comment on the call and give you their take, and just the fact that play was stopped is enough for the average fan to take a minute and analyze the call. But how often does that happen on a missed call? We don’t see all the potential calls that never were and have the opportunity to analyze them. Missed calls just don’t seem to have the same relevance as questionable calls.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there should have been some calls in tonight’s game (the only thing I recall that looked like should have been called was interference by Hedman on Seguin). I will say that the absence of calls benefitted the Bruins much more than it did the Lightning. The Bruins powerplay this playoffs has been borderline embarrassing: an atrocious 5/61 (8.2%, plus a shortie against). Meanwhile, the Lightning have gone an impressive 17/67 (25.4%) and has been a weapon all season; in fact, they scored three PPGs in the nail-biting Game 6. In addition, the Bruins penalty kill has struggled a bit (79.4%), while the Lightning have been lockdown at 92.3% (granted, some of those opportunities came against the Bruins’ troubled PP). Special teams edge? Lightning, and it’s not even close.

Would a few penalty calls have altered the balance of the game? Stats would say “yes.” Power plays for either team could have altered the momentum, most likely in favor of the Lightning. But, as hockey fans, do we want to see hockey slowed down by penalty calls? Do we want players to play less than 100% in fear of having a weak call go against them?

So, when it comes to playoff hockey, let me ask you…do you let the boys play, or do you call ’em like you see ’em?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Make the call

  1. Nice read. But there’s another element to the lack of penalties called. The Bruins had no answer for the Lightning’s powerplay, and the Bruins powerplay is absurdly awful. No penalties means no special teams, so advantage Bruins. But you have to consider that 5-on-5, the Bruins aren’t just better than the Lightning, they’re the best team in the entire playoffs. The Bruins were second best 5-on-5 all year, trailing only the Vancouver Canucks. Not only is the special teams battle heavily weighted toward the Lightning, even strength the Bruins have a spectacular advantage.

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