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Players, coaches unsure of where officiating standard rests in NHL playoffs

Confused looks. Bewildered players. Irate fans. Pundits weighing in. Coaches searching for an explanation.

The annual discussion about officiating in the NHL playoffs is well underway.

Unlike many springs past, however, when penalties that weren’t being calling compared to the regular-season standard was often the hot topic, 2023 post-season refereeing chatter has been more about competitors trying to figure out where the line rests when it comes what’s allowed — and what isn’t — on a game-to-game basis.

It’s been difficult for teams on some nights to get a handle on what’s above board and what results in an infraction.

“Always a challenge … because it is a different game,” Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the regular season compared to the playoffs. “The emotions are high. It’s not just the players who struggle to sort through that. It’s hard on the officials, too. 

“A lot of gamesmanship that’s going on throughout the game on both sides.”

Edmonton Oilers defenceman Mattias Ekholm said it has been a difficult to navigate.

“Do I know exactly where the line goes right now? Probably not,” he said. “I don’t think anyone does. But it’s also tough when you have different referees every night.

“Everyone has their own standard as referees and as humans, and that’s natural.” 

According to the NHL, through Monday there were an average 9.2 penalties per game in these playoffs compared to 10.9 at the same stage in 2022. The number sat at 8.7 in 2021, 10.0 in 2020 and 8.9 in 2019.

Power plays are also down — 7.3 in 2023 versus 8.2 in 2022 — in a post-season that has already seen 10 overtime games. There were three at the same point a year ago. 

“They’re trying to get out of the way and urgency starts picking up as the series goes on,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said of the refs. “Especially in elimination games, then everybody’s on edge, and nobody wants to make a mistake.”

Numbers aside, there’s a perception that calls are being made differently.

Edmonton Oilers winger Zach Hyman said he’s noticed more whistles on sequences away from the action.

“You’ve got to eliminate penalties that don’t have an effect on the play,” he said. “The refs are seeming to call those more frequently.”

“We have to be aware of the standard.” 

Frustrations have also boiled over.

Minnesota Wild forward Marcus Foligno unloaded on the officiating following a Game 4 loss to the Dallas Stars where he felt hard done by on a pair of calls.

“A joke,” Foligno said. “Doesn’t make any sense.”

Foligno was in trouble again 48 hours later when he was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for a kneeing on Stars centre Radek Faska.

The general reaction around the league to certain head-scratching moments has largely been more muted.

“I’m not commenting on that,” Tampa Bay Lightning winger Pat Maroon said of the reffing standard. “That’s just too much drama for you guys.”

“Been a lot of buzz,” added teammate Nick Paul. “If you’re going on the power play, be ready to respond. If you’re on the penalty kill, block shots and get down the ice.” 

Leafs centre Ryan O’Reilly has sympathy for officials under the microscope in a job where one call can effectively decide a team’s season.

“Just like us players, they’re trying to feel it out,” he said. “Playoffs is different. You’re trying to go hard, but there’s also balancing between, ‘When’s too hard, when’s too much?’ For the refs, it’s that same feeling. They’re trying to get the pulse and the feeling on the game.

“Different intensity, different game. There’s a balance that they’re trying to find and we’re trying to find.”

O’Reilly, who won the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues in 2019, said it can take a series or two figure out where the line with officials truly rests.

“That’s why it can feel a little inconsistent at times,” he said. “But as a player, you can’t get wrapped up in that. You’ve got to do what you can, talk to the refs in a way that benefits us.”

Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois said officiating is discussed “a lot” in Winnipeg’s locker room.

“It’s like the regular season where one game to another varies,” he said. “It’s the same for both teams.” 

Tampa defenceman Nick Perbix — a rookie in his first playoffs — has been watching closely to see where the standard sits each game.

“Especially on early calls,” he said. “You just take a quick little mental note, ‘OK, I guess I can’t do that.’ Or if you see people get away with stuff, ‘You can do that.’

“Every game it’s fluctuating a little bit.” 

Toronto winger Sam Lafferty said teams draw on past experience once the referees are announced.

“Definitely know who’s calling the games,” he said. “We’re with them so many times throughout the regular season that you get a feel for certain tendencies.

“But every game evolves differently. You’ve got to be ready to adapt.” 

Keefe added that as things get settled in the playoffs, the officiating has a tendency of levelling off.

“A matter of managing that space,” he said. “Just got to continue to play hard and be smart.” 

-With files from Donna Spencer and Gregory Strong.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2023.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press