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NHL officiating back under microscope in Stanley Cup Final

Bolts believe too many men on the ice on Game 4 winning goal
Colorado Avalanche centre Nazem Kadri shoots the puck into the top of the goal past Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) for a goal during overtime of Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Jon Cooper backtracked and shifted a possible missed call to the rearview mirror with the expertise of a coach who has been here before. Counterpart Jared Bednar, on the verge of his first NHL championship, sought to settle the issue once and for all and move on.

Still, the Stanley Cup Final is roaring toward a conclusion full of uncertainty about the officiating, which is in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons after Nazem Kadri’s overtime goal put the Colorado Avalanche up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.

The goal came with what Cooper and his Tampa Bay Lightning thought was too many men on the ice. No penalty was called, and now the Avalanche are one victory away from knocking off the back-to-back defending champions.

“Will one call make the difference in the series? No,” Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr said in a phone interview. “Colorado was the better team in overtime, there’s no question. Do you hope it doesn’t end on a play like that? Yeah. You hope that it’s something nice and clean and simple because instead of talking about what a good hockey game it was, everybody’s talking about the play.”

The play in question involved Kadri — playing his first game of the final after injuring his right thumb — jumping on the ice for a line change early, with teammate Nathan MacKinnon still roughly 40 feet from the bench. When Kadri scored, MacKinnon still had a skate on the ice, and the joining player isn’t supposed to even touch the puck in that situation.

“Players, we’re looking for every inch to get an advantage and try and jump in the play when you know your change is coming,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said Thursday. “It’s impossible to say what’s the right decision there. It’s so fast, and it probably happens a million more times a game more than we think.”

There’s some leeway for officials to judge too many men on the ice, and Tampa Bay technically had seven, though the players changing for each other were much closer to the home bench.

“You’re changing on the fly, everything happens,” Bednar said. “I count 7-6 at one point, so that is what it is. That’s the way the game is played. I don’t see it as a break or a non-break. I actually see it as nothing.”

In a statement sent to The Associated Press after Colorado’s 3-2 victory, the league’s Department of Hockey Operations deemed it a judgment call.

“In discussing the winning goal, each of the four officials advised that they did not see a too many men on the ice situation on the play,” the statement read. “This call is not subject to video review either by Hockey Ops or the on-ice officials.”

Should it be?

The NHL expanded video review in 2015 to coach’s challenges for offside and goaltender interference. Incidents in the 2019 playoffs led to more situations that coaches and officials can take an extra look at in the name of getting it right, though it’s limited to potential stoppages like a hand pass or the puck hitting the protective netting above the glass.

But at a time when video reviews put a drag on games in all sports and leagues are working to trim those extra minutes of precious time, there’s hardly an appetite for the NHL to make EVERYTHING subject to replay.

General managers will undoubtedly discuss this at the draft in Montreal next month, and perhaps the long-debated, so-called “eye in the sky” third referee concept will pick up steam. That could address at least the most obvious missed calls that might be seen and caught better from atop an arena than in the middle of all the action on the ice.

“They’ve got the hardest job in sport,” Fuhr said of NHL officials. “The game’s gotten bigger, faster and they have to keep up and there’s going to be missed calls along the way. That’s just hockey.”

Hotly debated calls have long been a part of hockey, and many New York Islanders fans were quick to point out the Lightning appeared to have too many men on the ice for the only goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final last year. Philadelphia Flyers fans still bring up the “Leon Stickle Game” when the linesman of that name missed an obvious offside on an Islanders goal in the 1980 clinching game of their first of four Stanley Cup championships in a row.

Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier, a star of that Islanders dynasty who won his seventh Cup title as an Avalanche assistant in 2001 and is coaching in the new 3ICE 3-on-3 league with Fuhr, said winning is about managing “the lucky bounce, the fortuitous bounce, the referee call: the something that can happen that’s out of your control that just kind of goes against you.”

READ MORE: Avs 1 win away from Stanley Cup after Kadri’s OT tally in Game 4 versus Lightning

“Those things, they can go for you or against you,” Trottier said. “You’ve got to take advantage when they go for you, and you’ve got to just move on when they go against you.”

Another judgment call earlier in the Game 4 allowed a Lightning goal to count after the puck shot at Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper knocked his mask off, with officials deciding not to stop play because the rulebook states it should continue if a scoring chance is in progress.

Before flying to Denver for Game 5 on Friday with his team down 3-1, Cooper tried to move on. Little more than 12 hours since he was nearly speechless, he called hockey “an inexact science” and sought to distance himself — sort of — from how Game 4 ended.

“What’s great about today is that it’s not yesterday,” Cooper said. “Nothing we can do to turn back. They missed it. It’s unfortunate, but it’s water under the bridge now. Let’s go get ready.”

Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press

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