One of the common, binding threads of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs thus far, regardless of team affiliation, is how consistently awful the officiating has been throughout the tournament.
Referees have applied an inconsistent standard of what's deemed a penalty and what isn't through the opening two weeks of the playoffs, a maddening development for fans, bettors, but more pointedly, to players and coaches, who have to make snap decisions in milliseconds.
The poor standard of refereeing, working in tandem with the NHL Department of Player Safety's wholly arbitrary suspension system — there is an element of class and race at play too, in some cases, but that's for another column — has cast a shadow on what's otherwise been a terrific sequence of games. Although the NHL has no idea how to market its star players, the league is undergoing a real talent boom and the viewers are largely better for it.
There have been many unfounded complaints, however, and the calls are coming from behind the bench. St. Louis Blues head coach Craig Berube complained about the penalty disparity in his team's first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche, and it frankly displayed a limited understanding of why his team was swept soundly by the Stanley Cup favourite.
"The refereeing, every game, we get one or two calls,” Berube said following a 5-1 loss to the Avalanche in Game 3. "It’s usually late in the third period. They’re getting four, five a game. I mean, (the play of the teams) isn’t that lopsided. I’m not sure why we don't get the calls that we deserve.
"It’s so one-sided, it’s not even funny."
What was one-sided and funny (at least to me, a hockey writer and fan with perverse interest in favourites rolling over their competition!) was the Avalanche's complete domination of puck possession, quality shot creation, shot suppression, or if you don't care about any of that, shot differential and the eye test clearly favouring Colorado's high-octane speed game over St. Louis's modified trap.
During the four-game sweep, the Blues posted a 41.52 Corsi-for percentage, generated 115 unblocked shot attempts against the Avalanche's 162, and created 24 high-danger chances against the Avalanche's 36, according to Natural Stat Trick. Colorado's top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen basically was allowed to create whatever it desired without much resistance, to say nothing of Cale Makar's brilliance throughout the series, with his world-class edge work on full display during Game 1's opening goal.
The Blues simply never had a chance, and you can't complain about the penalty disparity if you never have the puck.
The notion that penalties should be called evenly goes back to the simple principle of fairness, which of course is what every game should aspire to have. But the idea that all teams or all players are created equal when it comes to penalty distribution is faulty logic, especially at the NHL level. Taylor Hall leads all players in the playoffs with four drawn penalties prior to Wednesday's games, with MacKinnon on his heels with three drawn penalties. Hall and MacKinnon are both hyper-elite skaters, with excellent puck skills and shiftiness while flying through the neutral zone. They are designed to infuriate worn-out opponents and draw tripping, interference or hooking minors in the process.
In the same way that you wouldn't suggest conspiracy towards Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden drawing an inordinate amount of foul calls, the same idea applies to the NHL's best players.
Berube isn't alone in his complaints among his head coaching brethren.
Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme complained about the officiating after a 5-1 Game 2 loss to the Maple Leafs, a contest in which Ducharme's poor decision-making was compounded when he challenged a goal from Maple Leafs defenseman Rasmus Sandin for goaltender interference, with nary a blue shirt anywhere near the crease.
"I was surprised by the way it was called tonight," Ducharme told reporters.
Ducharme shouldn't have been surprised. Toronto posted a far-superior 56.79 Corsi-for percentage in Game 2, created seven high-danger chances compared to Montreal's two, and posted 34 unblocked shot attempts versus Montreal's 23. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner also played their best games of the series, dominating offensive zone possessions. While we're here: although Marner has yet to register a goal in the series, his defensive and penalty kill contributions have been elite. It'll no longer be a joke if he gets down-ballot Selke consideration next season.
The dissent isn't just coming from coaches who are looking for unquantifiable reasons for why their team was outmatched. Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour, who should firmly be in the running for the Jack Adams Award this year, also levied a harsh critique of the officials following a 5-4 double overtime loss to the Predators in Game 3 on May 21.
"We played great. We played hard. We're playing a great team. ... But we're also fighting the refs. That's plain and simple. You can't tell me two games in a row we get seven, eight penalties and they get three. And when the game's this even - it's not right," Brind'Amour said.
Brind'Amour is one of the brightest coaches in the sport, but he's also not far removed from his own playing career where he gained a reputation as one of the best two-way specialists of his era. Not only that, but the Hurricanes have been one of the best teams analytically throughout the regular season, while Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin are both masters of risk mitigation on the ice.
Of all the coaches to levy complaints about the officiating, Brind'Amour's comments hold far more weight than Berube and Ducharme's. The Hurricanes have been the superior team in Corsi for and Fenwick for at 5-on-5 in each of the five games in the series, and his legitimate gripes about the officiating underscore how silly Berube and Ducharme look by contrast.
Complain about the officiating all you want, and you'll likely find a sympathetic ear from your fan base, but as evidenced in these three cases, it looks outright foolish when your team seldom has the puck, or can't suppress chances from a cavalcade of elite forwards. For the rest of the coaching fraternity, you'll only look like the boy who cried wolf when there's no data to support the unquantified reasons behind the penalty disparities.
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