One of the unfortunate buzzworthy topics in the current NHL season has been the quality - or lack thereof - of the refereeing.
Disagreements with the boys in the zebra suits are part and parcel of professional sports fandom, but it seems as though the 2009-2010 NHL hockey season has had more than its share of borderline, questionable, and outright blown calls. The current joke - riffing on the now-infamous Brad May "non-goal" against the Dallas Stars - goes that the referees are exercising their "intent to suck."
Coyotes fans have had to weather bad refereeing in several games this year, but on Saturday night they found themselves in the strange position of having earned two points over the Philadelphia Flyers by virtue of two very questionable calls.The Coyotes and Flyers were knotted at 1-1 heading into the third period when the first controversial call occurred. As the period moved past its halfway point, the Coyotes found themselves on the power play. While cycling the puck, Adrian Aucoin bobbled a pass by the Flyers' blueline above the right circle. The view from the left side of the ice was clear - the puck traveled across the blueline and the left linesman indicated offsides.
However, whether he was screened or whether he saw something that almost everyone in the arena didn't, the right linesman energetically waved off the offsides. The Flyers bench went ballistic and coach John Stevens erupted into passionate arguing. Unfortunately for the Flyers, play continued - Aucoin passed to Matthew Lombardi, who found Keith Yandle at the right circle. Yandle's rocket shot cleared Flyers goalie Ray Emery and the Coyotes took a 2-1 lead.
Scott Hartnell indicated that the confusion over the non-call contributed to the Coyotes' goal by distracting Emery. "You can't blame Ray for that one," Hartnell said. "He thought what we all did."
Although Yandle's goal would prove to be the game-winner, the controversy wasn't over. With just over 30 seconds to go in the game, Shane Doan found himself with the puck with Emery off the ice for a sixth attacker. Driving to the net, Doan passed Philadelphia's Chris Pronger, who reached out with his stick. Doan's shot dribbled past the right post, and then the play was blown dead with 39.9 seconds remaining as the Flyers gained control of the puck.
Pronger headed to the penalty box, arguing vehemently with the referees. But what looked to be a Coyotes power play turned into something strange as the Coyotes players suddenly began clapping Doan on the back. Eventually, the scoreboard changed to 3-1, Pronger was let out of the box, and the game ended in a welter of confusion. No goal horn, no replay, and more importantly no puck in the net. And yet, there it was - 3-1.
The referees, it turned out, had judged Pronger's hook to be worthy of a penalty shot. And according to the NHL's rule 26.1, which reads:
A goal will be awarded to the attacking team when the opposing team has taken their goalkeeper off the ice and an attacking player has possession and control of the puck in the neutral or attacking zone on, without a defending player between himself and the opposing goal, and he is prevented from scoring as a result of an infraction committed by the defending team.
...Doan was credited with an awarded goal... even though his eventual shot never got close.
Pronger, of course, was livid. "He (the referee) said I got him on the hands but I got him on the stick," he said after the game. "I disagree. I didn't think it should have been a goal. I didn't even think it was a penalty. He had his stick down. How am I going to get him on the hands when I lifted his stick?"
Needless to say, the Flyers fans in attendance at Jobing.com Arena - who made up almost half of the crowd of just over 11,000 - left disappointed, bewildered and more than a little bitter. But even Coyotes fans were filing out of the arena, more sheepish than jubilant after having two points essentially gifted to them by the refereeing crew. Some fans were already rationalizing the events of the game as karmic retribution for bad calls against them earlier in the season, but all around the arena there were signs of Coyotes fans in animated conversation with Flyers fans, most likely commiserating on a very strange end to a very strange third period.
It is now almost two months since Terry Gregson took over for Stephen Walkom as head of the NHL's officiating department, but games like the Coyotes - Flyers tilt are starting to draw some unwelcome attention in a season already rife with tension and pessimism from issues such Southern market struggles, the NHLPA fiasco, the player safety debate, and issues with DirecTV and VERSUS.
While it is true that the quality of officiating reaches an equilibrium over the course of a given season, the sheer weight of dispute this early in the campaign does not bode well for the NHL's officiating crews. Bad officiating is at least a nuisance, but on this scale any inaction on the part of the NHL will only spell bad publicity for the league.
Coyotes fans love having two more points - but to get them in such a controversial fashion makes some fans nervous. Who can tell whether later in the season the scales will shift to the other side?
Here is the video recap of the game from NHL Video - judge for yourself.