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Should refs let more go during crunch time? 2016 playoff data suggests they likely are

Jason Kay
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Florida's Reilly Smith had a chance to clinch Game 6 against the Islanders, but Nick Leddy saved the day, and arguably got away with a trip in the process. (Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Should refs let more go during crunch time? 2016 playoff data suggests they likely are

Jason Kay
By:

Data from the first round of this year's playoffs shows penalty calls declined as the stakes in games increased. This might not be shocking, but is it an issue? Or do we accept it as part of the culture of our game?

After watching the final minutes of regulation of Game 6 in the Islanders-Panthers first round series, I was all ready to perch my soap box atop my high horse, which was balancing on my ivory tower.

With New York’s net empty in the dying moments, there were two trips that could have been called – one on Vincent Trocheck, the other Reilly Smith – infractions that either negated Panthers’ chances to seal the game, or at least given the Islanders a penalty. You could argue there was a tad of embellishment on the Smith fall, but it was borderline. Instead of a minor being called in either instance, the refs “let them play” and we all know the result.

It was a snapshot of a virus that has infected hockey culture for some time: when things matter most, discipline is benched. Or at least given shorter shrift.

To prove my point, I felt I should assemble the hard data, numbers that would surely support the eye test. For the purpose of this exercise, I focused on Round 1 games that were within a goal or tied with five minutes or fewer remaining.

The results do indeed suggest whistles take a break during these crucial moments. But, at least in this year’s first round, not to the extent I expected.

Here’s what the numbers said:

• 35 of the 47 games were “close” at the end; they were either tied or had one-goal differences in the last five minutes of regulation or in overtime

• during those 35 games, there was 290 total minutes of “crunch time” – the final five minutes and overtimes

• in the 290 minutes of crunch time, 40 minutes of power play time was awarded, plus a penalty shot

• of the 40 minutes, four was a double-minor for high-sticking, two a minor for too many men, and two a minor for puck over glass. In other words, eight of the 40 PIM were virtually automatic calls that didn’t require judgment

• of the remaining 32 minutes, one power play was six seconds long, and another 44, due to them being called at the end of the game (another pet peeve)

• that left us with 28:50 worth of judgment power play calls in 290 minutes of crunch time. Put another way, those types of penalties occupied 10 per cent of the time

• by comparison, using the same criteria and formula, there were 376 minutes of discretionary power plays awarded in the first 55 minutes of those close games. That translates to 20 per cent of the according time, or double what took place in crunch time

What do we read into this? For starters, the gap was smaller than I had anticipated, but still significant. We concede that players may tend play safer during crunch time, afraid to take a penalty that will lose the game for their teams. But we don’t believe that accounts for much of the discrepancy.

Rather, referees are continuing to overlook some infractions that would award a power play at the most critical times because of the stakes, and maybe the blow back.

However, by failing to apply the rules evenly no matter the time of the game, referees can and do have just as great an impact on outcomes. As Geddy Lee famously sings, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” There is a consequence in doing nothing.

The mindset mirrors the rationale behind supplemental discipline come springtime. We've been told one post-season game is viewed as the equivalent of multiple regular season games when deciding punishment. Unfortunately, the same formula doesn’t apply to anyone who gets injured, particularly due to an illegal play. One game = one game. There is no policy that will speed the healing.

On a smaller scale, penalties awarded in the final few seconds of games are by definition under-punished, unless the game goes to overtime. If Player A illegally obstructs Player B on a good scoring chance with eight seconds to play, and a call is made, the ensuing power play is virtually useless.

There are potential solutions that could be considered. Perhaps the punishment for some of these crunch time fouls out-weighs the crime, hence the hesitancy to call them. If that's the case, how about treating less severe infractions like icings? Hold a faceoff in the offending team's defensive zone and don't allow them to make substitutions. In the example that leads this article, the Islanders would have had to put Thomas Greiss back in net and the Panthers would have had fresher legs.

For five second power plays at the end of playoff games, the NHL could look at adding on time, as they do in soccer, to complete the PP.

Or maybe the officials are simply instructed to call the game by the book as it exists. Yes, a novel concept.

Or do nothing. The majority may in fact like the current "let 'em play" mentality, particularly when the game is on the line. But to spout the cliché, if you live by the sword, you have to accept dying by the sword. Don’t you just hate those double-edged swords?

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Should refs let more go during crunch time? 2016 playoff data suggests they likely are