Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Are You Kidding Me?

The four words every college hockey fan, especially in the ECAC, has uttered at one point or another, quite frequently at least once a weekend.

Look, I'm the first person to give referees what credit they deserve. They have a tough, thankless job, and it takes a special love for the game to do what they do, because you're never going to make everyone happy. In fact, the only way to have a good night is to go unnoticed.

But there's little question that the ECAC has issues when it comes to the men in black and white. Even the most casual of observers have recognized for years that when it comes to officiating, the ECAC just hasn't gotten the hang of it. When Paul Stewart came aboard as the Supervisor of Officials, that was supposed to change.

The most immediate impetus for this screed is pretty obvious.

If the game's tied late, there are really only three good reasons for penalties to be called. First and foremost, if the infraction is of a dangerous nature - a hit or a maneuver which is liable to get somebody hurt. Second , if the infraction in question interrupts an obvious scoring opportunity. Third, if there's an egregious protocol violation - unsportsmanlike conduct above and beyond arguing with a call, or a call of too many men. Really, these are the three basic reasons that penalties exist in the first place.

But late in the game, the nonsense behind the play and some of the more technical penalties - stuff that, yeah, by the book it's a penalty, but not by the spirit of the three reasons above - are invitations for referees to determine the ultimate result of a game. Their response is predictable - they aren't determining the outcome, the players are the ones taking the penalties. But that's not how it really is. The referee decides what gets called and what doesn't.

Never mind the Brandon Pirri major and game misconduct. Never mind that RPI played like they were sleepwalking through the 2nd period. By the time Paul Kerins scored his second of the night to tie the game 3-3 on Friday night, neither of those elements mattered anymore. The game was basically back to square one.

Harry Zolnierczyk throws his stick to try and draw penalties. That's the only conclusion I can draw after twice seeing his stick fly high up in the air in Brown's game at Houston Field House, something I can honestly say I've never seen in my many years of watching the game there. Was he throwing it when Joel Malchuk brought his stick down on it in the dying seconds of the third period in Providence? I don't know. I wasn't there. Was it dangerous? It's a judgment call, I suppose. In that light, I'm not entirely sure I can fault the penalty. Maybe the referee who made the call thought it was dangerous. Slashing is, after all, against the rules because of the potential for causing injury.

But then Peter Merth gets called for interference on the ensuing faceoff only three seconds later. I've tried to come up with a legitimate reason that this could have been called, and I can't find one. Interference can be called on practically every faceoff in college hockey, and it's almost never called. Interference, unlike slashing, is done to allow teams legitimate scoring chances rather than to avoid injuries. Given that a) the penalty came three seconds after the faceoff, barely enough time to raise the whistle and blow the play dead, b) the game was tied and about to head into overtime, and c) the Engineers had just been assessed a penalty, usually a rarity given the situation, I simply cannot fathom why this call was made. Was there interference? Perhaps. Again, I wasn't there. But given the circumstances, it seems exceptionally unlikely that if there was interference, that it was anything other than a run-of-the-mill faceoff interference and hardly one that was negating a clear scoring opportunity. When the whistle blew, everyone and their mother expected that there was some kind of even-up call coming to make it a long 4-on-4. Instead, it put the Engineers down two with everything to lose.

And that's ultimately the problem here. Head shaking calls like this one. As soon as it was called, every RPI backer in the building and listening on the radio knew the game was over.

Every penalty is a judgment call, and we're supposed to be able to trust the judgment of the league's referees. But time and time again, they've shown an inability to display sound judgment in their calls. What is a penalty and what isn't a penalty varies from game to game. What gets called and what gets ignored varies from game to game. It's maddening. And when games are close at the end, it gives referees the opportunity to decide the game.

I'd like to think that if the situation were reversed, I'd be equally disappointed, but I know it's not true. The less-than-objective eye tends to forget the stuff that goes in your favor and dwells on the stuff that goes against you. Still, I feel like I can honestly say that if Brown had gone down two men in a similar situation, it would seem as though the game was being gifted to us.

Hockey fans don't expect everything to be called. They don't expect everything to be let go. They expect that when a team has a slim lead late in the 3rd, that they've got to be on their best behavior, because the team that's behind is probably going to get that one power play chance late if you give the referee the excuse to blow the whistle. At the same time, they expect that the team that's behind might get away with some of the little things. By and large, they also expect the referee to swallow the whistle late in a tie game - with the three major exceptions noted above - and let the teams decide things on their own.

I've seen RPI win games in overtime on legitimately called late penalties - the one that sticks out in my mind is a win at Cheel Arena in 2003 after a dangerous kneeing penalty to Clarkson late in the game. I've seen a game where RPI gave up a tie game late on a legitimate takedown penalty. But I can't recall a game being given away on namby pamby calls like this.

Could the Engineers have avoided the situation? Yeah. They could have finished in a first period they dominated and not played so terribly in the second period and taken a big lead into the third the way they certainly could have. But the situation as it was dictated a hands-off approach, and there was none. And it's not the first time this season where referees have determined the outcome.

Is this acceptable, Mr. Stewart?

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