NHL Playoffs and Penalties

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NHL Playoffs and Penalties ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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By UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer, Mike Ivcic

Playoff hockey is supposed to be the NHL’s showcase event, so why is the league dealing with head-hunting instead of goal-scoring?

There’s nothing quite like playoff hockey, but this year it has come with a surprisingly large dose of heavy hitting, and sometimes of the ugly variety. It all reached a boiling point on Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, where Aaron Asham, James Neal, and Craig Adams of the Pittsburgh Penguins all viciously attacked a variety of Philadelphia Flyers players, and all ultimately were suspended as a result. The issue that I have is that so many are focusing on whether or not those players deserved their respective punishments, but that misses the biggest question. How does the NHL stop these kinds of actions from occurring in the first place?

For starters, this is the playoffs. I played youth hockey, high school hockey, and college hockey. The part the schedule I hated the most was any segment where we played a team in back-to-back games. The second game was always more physical, more heated, and usually more penalty-filled than the first. Now take that, raise the level of play by about ten notches and the stakes by about 20 notches, and you’ll have a better understanding of why tempers have suddenly boiled over as teams are now meeting for a third time in less than a week. That’s been the case since the Stanley Cup was first handed out in 1896, though, so what’s new about this year?

On-ice officiating.

You haven’t heard this anywhere else, mostly because no one on any of the NBC family of networks wants to be accused of criticizing the people who have the toughest jobs in the entire game. But having watched at least 10 minutes of just about every single playoff game this season, I can say without question that the lack of penalties called early in the game by the two referees has been the PRIMARY reason for all of the nasty hits and subsequent discipline handed out during these playoffs. Things that were penalties during the regular season – particularly slashes, head contact, and extracurricular pushing and shoving after the whistles – have all been ignored early on in the bulk of the playoff games thus far. That leaves a player thinking, “Well if (insert penalty here) is legal, then (insert other penalty here) must be legal too.” After all, as is the case with any competitor in any sport, they’ll do whatever they can get away with if it helps to win a game, series, or championship. And suddenly it’s the third period and you have what we like to call “escalation.”

So why won’t anyone make this point? I wish I knew the answer to that question, aside from my assertion of cowardice outlined above. But whether it’s Brendan Shanahan, Colin Campbell, or even Gary Bettman, someone in the NHL main office needs to send a message to the on-ice officials that they are the first line of deterrents to help stop the ugly plays that have begun to dominate the headlines. Additionally, ignoring penalties and “swallowing the whistle” only allows the less-talented team to keep games close by doing all of the things that are “illegal” to keep the more-talented team from emerging and using that talent to win the game. But again, there’s a reason these things are penalties. They detract from the ability of players to play the game properly, and thus not making those calls leads to hockey that is at a level less than what it should be – and at a time when it should be better than it is at any other point of the season.

So a note to all referees – just call the penalties that are in the rulebook from the first drop of the puck and this entire game will change for the better. Otherwise fans will be turned off by ugly plays like the ones many witnessed on Sunday in Philadelphia and the overall product will suffer. And THAT is the type of thing that would definitely get Mr. Bettman’s attention.

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