Stop Making Sense – Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final was an entertaining game for sure, and since it was played in Vegas – the alleged entertainment capital of the U.S. – that’s probably all that matters. The Caps and the Golden Knights combined for 10 goals and four lead changes, and the lead changes were the most ever in a Cup final series. Vegas won it 6-4, but neither coach was happy afterward – one was happier than the other – and both used the word “sloppy” in reference to the game.
So sloppy, and entertaining.
What exactly made it entertaining, though? Would it have been as entertaining with seven saves in place of seven of those goals, and one of the teams skating off with a 2-1 win? Would it have been more entertaining with a better ice surface that would better showcase the speed and other talents of the best players on both sides? What about if the teams weren’t as rusty from long and unnatural layoffs? Would it have been even more entertaining with more power plays that might have resulted in even more goals?
The Stanley Cup final is when all eyes are on the game, the sport and the last two teams left standing after a grueling, grinding and taxing run of 82 regular season games and another 15-20 playoff games spread over about eight months time. It deserves the best the game has to offer – the best conditions, the best ice, the best officiating, the best of everything. That’s how you grow the game, and that’s how you attract new fans to a game that many of us believe is the best one in existence.
Unfortunately, that’s rarely how it works out.
Bad ice is bad ice, and when it’s bad it’s bad for both sides as every player ever is quick to remind every reporter who ever asks about it. Why call it ice hockey, then? Would the NFL or MLB play a Super Bowl or World Series game on tall, wet, weed-ridden grass? Not likely.
The quality of the ice for Monday’s series opener was sorely lacking. Players (and officials) were randomly going down for no apparent reason. In-game ice repairs were made more than once to certain distressed areas of the rink. Pucks bounced and didn’t sit flat; they behaved more like tennis balls with nail holes punched in them. Icing calls were difficult to make for the linesman, and some of those calls weren’t the correct ones.
Sometimes, the ice is good. Sometimes it’s bad. It’s inconsistent.
Prior to the first television timeout in the first period, Caps winger Andre Burakovsky was penalized for boarding. Some may have seen it as a marginal call; it was a bit of a crosscheck from behind. But if you’re one of the players in uniform on either side, that first call – especially early in the game – often gives you an idea of how the game will be called the rest of that night by hat particular officiating crew.
Not on Monday night, though. The call on Burakovsky was the only one until the Knights were assessed a bench minor for too many men late in the second period. And that was it for the power plays on both sides.
Many more fouls committed by players in home and road sweaters were ignored. That happens sometimes, too, especially in the playoffs. Let the boys play, the theory goes.
Which means anything goes.
But why have rules if you’re only going to enforce them selectively? Why is it that sometimes a trip that’s called in the first period is ignored in the third, or a trip that’s called in November is ignored in May? And what goes into – and who makes – the call to “let the boys play” on a given night?
With the Caps leading in the third period of Monday’s game, Vegas winger Ryan Reaves administered a two-handed crosscheck to Caps defenseman John Carlson right in front of the Washington net, and right in front of the officials. Before Carlson could return to his feet, Reaves collected the puck and scored to tie the game at 4-4.
Instead of the game being 4-4, it should have remained 4-3, and Washington should have been heading to the power play. It might have even scored on said power play, which would have led to a two-goal swing in the game. Instead of 4-4, it might have been 5-3.
“I didn’t like their fourth goal,” said a diplomatic Caps coach Barry Trotz after the game. “I thought we were going on the power play there, but it didn’t affect our bench, and then we almost had it tied up with [Lars] Eller in front with about 40 seconds to go; we missed an open net to get it tied up there. That’s playoff hockey, and you’ve just got to respond.”
A two-handed whack to Eller’s stick was part of the reason “we missed an open net,” but that call often requires a broken stick to earn a raised arm from one of the officials.
The belief here is that the Reaves play would have resulted in a penalty and a no goal call far more often than not during the regular season. Letting the boys play is one thing, but when the actual outcome and result of the game is on the line and the stakes are as high as they are at this stage of the season, that call has to be made. The stakes are simply too high right now.
Trotz wasn’t actually asked about the Reaves play specifically; he interjected that on his own. But he was asked about Tom Wilson, as in, did he expect to have Tom Wilson in the lineup for Game 2? Did an interference minor for a borderline late shoulder-to-shoulder hit on Vegas winger Jonathan Marchessault become a suspendable offense overnight, as was seemingly the case in the second round of the playoffs against Pittsburgh, when four officials – and the league’s supervisor of officials who was in attendance that night – saw nothing wrong with a Wilson hit on Pens forward Zach Aston-Reese, only to have that seemingly good hit mushroom into a three-game suspension overnight?
"They all got together and they said, ‘You know what, we've got a good, clean check here,’" NHL on-site supervisor Paul Devorski said after Game 3 of that Pittsburgh series, to a pool reporter. Less than 24 hours after Devorski made that statement, Wilson was suspended for three games.
Given that the Department of Player Safety saw fit to suspend Wilson for three games for that same hit the very next day, you’d think the league would have come down hard on those four officials who endangered the safety of Aston-Reese with their non-call on a play that resulted in a three-game suspension. But we’ll never know. I don’t believe that referees Kevin Pollock and Francois St. Laurent worked beyond that second round; I’m not sure whether they officiated any more games in the second round. Linesman Greg Devorski (Paul’s brother) and Ryan Gibbons did work frequently in round three.
After Monday’s Game 1, Vegas coach Gerard Gallant praised the officiating. “I thought the officiating was outstanding tonight – they did a real good job.”
Ah, but Gallant again, in the very next breath, still responding to the same question as above: “You know, that’s a tough call. When I seen it live, I didn’t see much of it. But then when you watch it in replay and you see how late he hits Marchessault, for me it should have been a major penalty.”
Sometimes, the officiating is good. Sometimes it’s bad. It’s inconsistent. Sometimes the postgame assessment of the officiating is inconsistent, too.
Over the last few years we have documented repeatedly in this space how much better the Capitals tend to play when they are in the rhythm of schedule that has them playing every other day.
Usually, a team that is extended to a deciding Game 7 in a playoff series – as the Capitals were in their Eastern Conference final series against Tampa Bay – isn’t afforded the luxury of several days off if it happens to win that Game 7 as the Caps did last week.
When Boston needed a Game 7 with which to dispose of Toronto in the first round, the Bruins were afforded two days between that contest and Game 1 of their subsequent series with Tampa Bay. When Winnipeg needed seven games to get by Nashville in the second round, the Jets had just one day in between the end of that set and Game 1 of the Western final against Vegas.
The Caps finished each of their first two series in six games. They got a two-day break between the first and the second round – the same break that Boston got at the end of that same round – and they got three days between the second and third rounds.
But coming off a Game 7 in the third round, the Caps had a five-day gap between games, their longest break between games in four months, since the NHL’s All-Star Game in late January.
Vegas had an eight-day break after ending the Jets’ season in a five-game third-round series. The Stanley Cup final is a bit of a different animal, because it often pits a pair of teams who are based a few time zones apart, as is the case in this series between Washington and Vegas. Extra travel days are needed in such situations, and they’ve been built into this series in the appropriate spots. But the Caps didn’t need five days to make their way to Vegas. They didn’t come via covered wagon.
Sometimes breaks between playoff series are inconsistent.
The Cup final is the league’s biggest stage, but Monday’s Game 1 pitted a pair of rusty teams playing on a less than stellar ice surface with a positively puzzling job of officiating. The good news is, it should be better from here on out.
Well, except for maybe the ice.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman held court for the hockey media on Monday afternoon, as is customary before Game 1 of the final. As expected, one of the questions concerned the recent Supreme Court ruling that paves the way for legalized sports betting. Here’s how that exchanged played out, transcript courtesy of NHL Media:
Q. With the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down paths to legalize sports gambling across the country, does the league support a push for federal legislation to now deal with this issue? And some of the leagues have also supported the idea of what’s been termed an integrity fee, and does the league support that, as well?
GARY BETTMAN: “Two responses, and I’ll see if Bill wants to add to that. The first is we’re looking for consistency. Whether that can be done federally, which would make it easier to make sure the rules of the game, the types of bets that are being placed, how things are being conducted, we’d like consistency, and we’d like not to have it vary state by state. Now, if all the states want to come together and do the same thing, that would be the equivalent of federal legislation, and that’s something that we’re focused on.
You know, we have -- I’m not sure I buy the term integrity fee. I don’t worry about the integrity of our players. I think, though, if you’re going to allocate for yourself to run a business on our intellectual property and the performance of our athletes and the platform that we put on for our games, we’re entitled to be involved in that.”
It’s ironic that the commissioner of a league that lacks consistency in so many aspects of its day-to-day operation is looking for consistency in this instance, using the word twice in his response.
Bettors and gamblers are also looking for consistency, or at least an edge. And when it comes to officiating, ice quality, and patterns of play in regards to off days during the Stanley Cup playoffs, consistency doesn’t exist. When a bettor doesn’t know from night to night what to expect from the ice quality or the officiating in the NHL, how likely is he or she to have any interest in the sport? And how likely is he or she to converge on the league’s posh New York offices with pitchforks and torches when a bet goes south because of a bad call or a non-call, or sticky or slushy ice?
With all of the inconsistency the NHL has to offer, betting on the league's games is more like a roll of the dice, but hey, why not? We’re in Vegas.