Editorial Note About Officiating

As a trained hockey referee and an official and coach in other sports, I can say from experience being a referee is a very difficult job.  The National Hockey League does an excellent job selecting and training their officials and icing the best officiating crews in the world.  Almost without exception, the four officials on the ice do the best job they possibly can to ensure a safe, fair, and entertaining game.  That said, they are human beings, the speed of the game means they will occasionally miss calls, and they have feelings just like everyone else.  That said, the last two games in Madison Square Garden were poorly officiated and biased, but Game 6 was an absolute travesty. 

In summary, the New York Rangers received 5 powerplays to the Capitals 0.  The Capitals clearly deserved two penalties in the game (Alzner's delay of game and Fehr's elbow), but the referees' inability or unwillingness to rein in the Rangers led to several retaliation penalties tby the Capitals that should have been both players going at the very least.  In the first period, Rangers' captain Ryan Callahan got away with a blatant elbow on Jack Hillen, leading to a retaliation penalty for Hillen.  Hillen was called for a roughing penalty even though replays showed Callahan clearly embellishing by jerking his head back after Hillen's glove hit his chest, which is not roughing.  The referees also did not call a very late hit from behind on Mathieu Perreault by Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto.  The hit was delivered when the puck was 40 feet away from Perreault and it sent him crashing into the boards.  To be clear, Dorsett had already been penalized for diving after intentionally running into Joel Ward earlier in the series.  Later in the game, the referees called a cross-checking penalty on Joel Ward after Derek Dorsett flew into his of his own free will, very reminiscent of the ridiculous penalty Jason Chimera was called for at the end of the second period of Game 4.  The biggest disgrace of them all was Dorsett's attempt to slew foot Mike Green in the third period.  Even though Green didn't fall over after Dorsett kicked his skate out from under him, Green slammed into the boards and Dorsett proceeded to hold onto Green's leg, keeping him from moving.  Green thoroughly deserved the 2-minute penalty he got for cross-checking Dorsett in the mouth for his reckless play, and he probably deserved 4 (and Ribeiro probably could have gotten a penalty for tripping Dorsett on his way back to the bench), but it is inconceivable that Dorsett was not assessed a penalty for his role in the play.  Predictably, when a game gets out of hand because of poor officiating, an end-of-game brawl broke out, earning the Rangers their only two penalties on the scoresheet, but they were assessed after the final horn had sounded and did not affect the outcome of the game. 

Read on.

The last time I have ever seen a game officiated with such bias was in the winter of 2007, when current NBA player O.J. Mayo was playing for Huntington High School, the #1-ranked high school team in the country, against Capital High School in Charleston, WV.  I was in attendance at the game and was surprised at how much two of the three referees, the two white refs, were calling the game in favor of the home team.  The seminal moment came when Mayo threw down a thunderous dunk and strutted back to center court and one of the refs gave him a technical foul. When Mayo rushed over to the ref to plead his case, the ref suddenly stopped, causing Mayo to get too close to the ref.  While we may never know exactly what happened, if Mayo touched him or not, the ref fell over and immediately ejected Mayo from the game, which led to him missing the next two games, as well.  While Huntington won that game, Mayo's absence over the next two cost Huntington High a chance at a national title.  Only later did it come out that Mayo and those officials had been in the same restaurant at dinner the night before and Mayo had been smack-talking them. 

Such an incident occurred with NHL referee Stéphane Auger.  Auger had a history of calling phantom penalties when he thought a player was speaking ill of him (a la Shane Doan's misconduct in 2005), but his big gaffe came in 2009-10.  In one game between the Nashville Predators and the Vancouver Canucks, Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows embellished a call to get a major penalty out of the Predators, then showed up referee Auger who had made the call.  For some reason, the NHL allowed Auger to referee the very next game between the two teams, and Auger told Burrows that he was going to "get him back" for making a fool of him in the previous game, and that he did.  Auger called four penalties on Burrows in the third period.  After Auger was involved in another controversy the following spring involving the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, he suddenly "retired" at the age of 41 to "spend more time with his family," which means officiating game sin the Austrian league.  It is fairly clear Auger was done as an NHL for failure to keep his personal bias out of his decisions. 

Marc Joannette, the referee making the questionable calls and non-calls in Manhattan in Games 4 and 6, does not have quite that colorful of a history, but he did have a famous run-in with then-Columbus Blue Jackets forward Jason Chimera in October 2008.  Chimera had lined up a Maple Leafs player for a hit in Toronto's zone when Joannette suddenly got in Chimera's way. Their collision knocked Chimera's helmet off, but both of them got up quickly.  The Maple Leafs scored on the play, but the Blue Jackets would eventually come back and win the game.  The Columbus Dispatch quoted Chimera as saying, '"That's the hardest I've ever been hit in my career," said Chimera, who might have broken his nose. "I was going to lay a hit on Ponikarovsky (in the offensive zone) and the ref backed into me. It was a good blindside pick for sure. We must have been playing NFL rules."'  Referees remember when someone talks about them like that, especially someone who has a reputation for chirping at officials. 

The officiating in this series had been fairly reasonable in this series until Game 4, the first game called by Joanette.  The Rangers were whistled for two penalties in the first period and none after that. With the Capitals on the powerplay, the officials called two penalties on the same scoring chance, a very unusual occurrence, especially since Martin Erat was called for a penalty after he was injured on the play.  At the end of the second period, Jason Chimera was called for interference at the 20-minute mark for pushing Anton Stralman down to the ice and into his own goalie.  This isn't to say Stralman dove, he's a pretty clean player, but it was a very weak call because the period was over, it wasn't much of a hit, and nobody was hurt, but in Marc Joanette's mind, Chimera was guilty. 

To be sure, the numbers bear out a clear trend in the Rangers being penalized less in this series.  They were a disciplined team in the regular season, taking few restraining fouls, and for the most part, they really haven't gotten away with anything serious in that regard.  Where the disparity comes in is when the referees call penalties on the Capitals that they aren't calling on the Rangers, mostly in terms of confrontational penalties.  The raw numbers: 26 power play opportunities for the Rangers, 14 for the Capitals through 6 games. The disparity is 15-5 for the Rangers in home games and 19-7 since end of game 2 when Caps up went up 2-0 in the series. No team has had more powerplay time than the Rangers, clocking in at over 45 minutes.  Only 1 team has had less time on the powerplay than the Capitals, who have just over 23 minutes.  

In Game 1, the Rangers were called for 6 penalties, the Capitals for 5, but one of those was a joke: Jay Beagle barely touched John Moore after an icing call and was called for boarding.  Game 2 was another one that was pretty fair, the referees took two men off for roughing at the end of the first and evened up a weak interference call on Joel Ward by sending Dorsett off for diving.  Otherwise, the penalties were 3 for the Caps, 2 for the Rangers, and the refs didn't call Karl Alzner for delay of game when they probably could have if they really wanted to.  The Capitals definitely played a sloppy game in Game 3 and decidedly earned four of their 6 penalties versus just 3 penalties called on the Rangers.  Calling the Capitals for having 6 men on the ice when the Rangers had 9 was weird, and the elbowing call on Steve Oleksy was pretty weak, but they weren't phantom penalties, either.  Maybe they could have been let go, but it was otherwise a decently-called game. By the same token in Game 5, the Capitals were called for 4 penalties to the Rangers' 2, but it was a pretty evenly called game. 

If the history of this series is any indication, the Capitals should get decent officiating at home to close out this series.  We can only hope Marc Joanette is done officiating games for these playoffs and spares the NHL any further embarrassment.