The NHL playoffs have had a plethora of good story lines throughout the first two rounds, with heroes and villains emerging from each series as one of sports' most demanding post-seasons stretches on through May.
But as the Conference semi-finals move along, much like every year, the topic of officiating has become a hot-button issue across the hockey world, and some would argue with good reason too. Most hockey fans will tell you there is nothing like old-time hockey where the referees put the whistles away and let the players decide the outcome of the game, and come playoff time this is a philosophy that almost becomes an unwritten rule that the officials abide by. Some nights it seems that players are able to get away with murder, and yet others, the referees are much more consistent with their calls, which confuses new and old hockey fans alike.
In the 2011 playoffs there have been several instances where either a clear penalty wasn't called, or a fairly weak penalty (at least in comparison to other non-calls from the game/series) was called at a key situation in the game. The Canucks took some heat in their series with Nashville for what some were calling "embellishing calls", where on two separate occasions Ryan Kesler drew a penalty and went on to score the winning goal on the ensuing powerplay.
Both situations represent a different scenario in which the referees were scrutinized after the game. On the first one, Shea Weber put a light hook on Kesler that, truthfully, would likely be called in the regular season. Kesler tipped in the overtime winner while an enraged Weber watched from the penalty box. In a game where each team had only been assessed one minor penalty each period, the Weber call was a tough pill to swallow, especially if you're a Predators fan.
In the next game, Predators defenseman Ryan Suter was called for clearly holding Kesler, but replay showed Kesler high-sticking the Preds' Mike Fisher just prior, and only Suter was called for the hold. On the ensuing powerplay, guess who. Kesler scores what stands as the game-winner about a minute in to what could have easily been a 4 minute double minor, as Fisher was cut under his visor.
These plays are less representative of the integrity of the referees, and more of the state of the game today. While each rule is clearly defined in the rule book, there is no doubt that come playoff time some of the weaker calls are let go, as each powerplay is huge. Hockey fans would hate to see an NHL in which every infraction is called, reminiscent of the early days of the NHL post-lockout, where anything and everything was being called to adjust to the new rules on obstruction.
Yet without a crack down on every foul, it leaves room for debate when a call is inevitably missed, or let slide. Had every hook, hold, or slash been called in Game 3 of the Nashville-Vancouver series, perhaps the Weber call might have been more understandable. It's the inconsistency between calling next to nothing for 60 minutes of play, and then sending off the Predators captain for not doing much more than putting his stick on Kesler. Until each and every call is made, plays like this will always be up for debate, and unfortunately the blame will always fall on the official for "deciding the game".
From a referee's stand-point, they have to do their job, and retain a sense of integrity within the game itself and the players in it. It's a huge responsibility bestowed on them to call the infractions as they see it, and to try not to let other factors in the game influence their decisions in any way. It's a task that the vast majority of hockey fans would never be able to perform, despite how easy it seems from the comfort of a sofa.
It's a difficult issue to deal with, because no one wants to see a game decided entirely by special teams, and who doesn't love end-to-end 5 on 5 hockey? The NHL is one of the only leagues that allows their officials the ability to morally decide whether or not to make a call that happens in plain sight (look at the 97th CFL Grey Cup Final, where the championship was won/lost on a too many men penalty), and although actually calling a penalty does not necessarily decide a game, they are still making the decision as to whether or not a powerplay is awarded.
Regardless, fans will always argue calls, and even if there are more calls, they will just be seen as weak ones, which means the debate will never stop. Since the lockout, the new NHL has given referees an arsenal of infractions to pick from that occur each and every night, and it's up to them which ones warrant a 2 minute penalty in an important playoff game. Either they call everything, or just revert back to the clutch-and-grab NHL of the old, and continue hearing from coaches and players alike: Where's the call?