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Are NHL referees really to blame?

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With yet another controversial call going against the Phoenix Coyotes, how much blame should NHL referees get?

USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Coyotes have had a love-hate relationship with NHL officials for a long time now. This week it's been more hate than love.

Saturday night's affair against the Washington Capitals featured the latest indignity: an early first period goal by Brandon McMillan waved off by referee Tim Peel after Peel ruled that Halak had been pushed into the net by the Coyotes' forward.

The video evidence of this is, shall we say, dubious. Play continued, and the Coyotes would ultimately lose the game by one goal.

So what should fans make of this?

There are two very distinct camps.

The first says that this decision adversely affected the outcome of the game. It seems pretty cut and dry; the Coyotes did not get the early goal (though they would eventually score first), which meant that they only had a 2-0 lead going into the third instead of a 3-0 lead. If nothing else had changed, there would have at least been overtime. What's more likely, the Coyotes would have put a stranglehold on the Capitals, who had been struggling to score at even-strength, and may have even gotten more opportunities as the Caps took defensive risks to create more offense.

The other camp scoffs at this notion. It is simply impossible to say that this decision prevented the Coyotes from winning. The fact that a goal was waved off does not change the fact that Phoenix got sloppy defensively in the third and got horribly out-chanced down the stretch. Peel didn't take a stick and shoot the game winning goal into the Phoenix net. The Coyotes beat themselves, and no amount of perfect officiating would have changed that.

So who's right? Everybody and nobody, actually.

Would the game have been different had the Coyotes scored that first goal? Definitely. Would that have guaranteed a Coyotes win? Definitely not. The rest of the game could have stayed the same and Phoenix could have lost in a shootout. Adam Oates could have flipped out, put Braden Holtby in, and shutout the Coyotes the rest of the way. Adam Oates could have flipped out, put Braden Holtby in, and then re-inserted Halak into the game after Holtby gave up four goals in the period. Listing out all the possible outcomes is an exercise in fultility.

But one thing that this decision ought to underscore is some of the major problems that plague how the NHL goes about regulating its games.

For one, Tim Peel still officiates in this league despite numerous controversies, seemingly without reprimand. There's no reason for fans to believe there is accountability in the league office when the league doesn't even publicly acknowledge that mistakes were made (something that the National Football League does, to its credit).

More importantly, it highlights how absurdly subjective some of the standards in the league are. Pushing a goaltender into the net is a non-reviewable call on the basis of subjectivity, yet determining what is and isn't a "distinct kicking motion" can be left up to Toronto. Coaches cannot challenge egregiously bad decisions, such as the mile-high offside of Matt Duchene or the Red Wings' bounce off the backboard, yet officials do not even have to be made available to the media after controversial decisions.

All of these issues could be resolved relatively quickly, with little to no noticeable difference in the pace of the game or the quality of the product. But the status quo leaves fans yelling at each other over the awfulness of a call while the officials who made that decision quietly pack their things, hop on a plane to the next city, and leave us all wondering if the league really cares about the quality of the officiating in the first place.