By: Will Burchfield
The fury that Jeff Blashill directed at a pair of officials earlier this month over a controversial goalie-interference review melted into pity on Thursday night.
It’s not their fault, Blashill has come to believe. It’s the NHL’s.
Buffalo’s 3-2 overtime win over Detroit on Thursday was buoyed by Evander Kane’s second-period wraparound goal, which was aided by Jason Pominville standing in the crease and preventing Jimmy Howard from getting his stick to the far post. Blashill challenged the call. About a five-minute review ensued. The call stood.
Blashill was stunned. He said he firmly believed the Wings were going to win the challenge. He believed the same thing about three weeks ago when he challenged a last-second game-winner by Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau after Huberdeau backed into Petr Mrazek in the crease and knocked the goalie over.
When the call was announced that night, Blashill went ballistic on the referees. He was subdued — sympathetic, in fact — on Thursday.
“I feel bad for the refs. Honestly, I wasn’t mad at them. I said, ‘I feel bad for you guys,’ because I don’t even know what they’re supposed to make their judgement on. There were some talk that there wasn’t contact — that’s not true, the stick’s contact. But I don’t know what they’re supposed to make their judgment on,” Blashill said. “When you have grey (area), you’re in trouble with the replay rule. So let’s just take it out.”
Goalie interference — what is and what isn’t — has become a hot-button issue in the NHL this season. No one seems to understand the rule. Blashill likened it to the NFL’s notorious catch rule in that it can go any way on any night. It went in favor of the goal scorer on Thursday. On Friday, it might go in favor of the goalie.
Many rules in hockey allow for interpretation. Some demand it. But only one seems to lack a clear definition. Asked about the call on Thursday night, Howard’s first response was to chuckle as if to say, “What can I do?” Indeed, the situation was almost comical.
There was Howard, a 12-year vet, tossing up his hands: “No idea what goalie interference is anymore in this league.”
There was Henrik Zetterberg, a 15-year vet, tossing in the towel: “I was pretty sure that was not goalie interference with the rules they are calling for now.”
There was Blashill, a former goalie, raising the nuances of the position: “On a wraparound the first thing that you lead with is your stick. (Pominville’s) stick comes in, hits the pad and keeps (Howard’s) stick from being able to jam. That’s how the puck goes in.”
There was Martin Biron, another former goalie and now an analyst, pointing to different nuances altogether: “If Howard wants to make the save all he needs to do is go butterfly slide on the wraparound. Pominville had no impact on the goal being scored. Howard played it wrong, simple call. Good goal.”
The irony about all this uncertainty is that everything was black and white just a few months ago. Blashill commended the league’s hockey operations department for spelling out the rule clearly entering the season.
“I thought they had done an unreal job. Basically, if you went in the blue on your own and you made contact with the goaltender and it kept him from being able to play his position, it was going to be called back. I could go to my guys and say exactly what (the rule) was,” Blashill said.
Still, there were several controversies in the first half of the season, a few involving some of the NHL’s top players. That thrust the issue into the public eye, leading to a meeting in Tampa Bay over the All-Star break that included Gary Bettman, director of hockey operations Colin Campbell and a handful of coaches, general managers and refs who were in town for the event.
The diagnosis was that officials were over-scrutinizing plays under review. And the resolution, according to a memo sent around the league, was that officials should review video at normal speed and only reverse a call in the event of egregious goalie interference.
Nearly a month later, things haven’t improved.
“There was a meeting that I wasn’t a part of, certainly, at the All-Star Game and there was a feeling that too many goals were getting called back. Then they wanted to go back to this term ‘egregious.’ Well, what’s egregious mean? I’d ask you guys: What’s egregious mean? It means something different to you, to you, to you,” said Blashill, pointing his finger around the room, “to me, to you, so now we’re back to ultra grey.”
If there were one authority in charge of interpreting and enforcing the rule, this wouldn’t be such a problem. Instead, the power falls into the hands of the two refs who happen to be in charge on a given night. New refs come in the next night (and the next and the next), and inconsistencies ensue. For Blashill, the frustration is two fold: the inability to explain to his players what they can and can’t do around the net, and the sense that the NHL is sacrificing clarity in the name of more goals.
“I’ve thought this for a long time — I deal with this with USA Hockey, it’s the same here — rules don’t create offense. They don’t. If you want more offense in the NHL, make the nets bigger or make the goalie equipment smaller. Other than that, forget it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with our game. If you want more goals to be scored then reward offensive pressure. That’s the difference. Just look at the tape from 1984 to 2018 and tell me what the difference is. The difference is the goalies’ equipment is way bigger and there’s way less to shoot at,” Blashill said, laughing at the obvious. “We’re trying to make it up. It’s crazy.”
At this point, Blashill would just as soon see the coach’s challenge removed.
“Nobody wants goals called back because we want more goals, but now we just have a rule that’s grey as grey can be. … I don’t even know what it is. If we don’t want goals called back then take the rule out, just take the challenge out. I have no problem with that,” said Blashill.
Short of that, Blashill suggested levying penalties against teams for incorrectly challenging a goalie-interference call, as the league already does for failed offsides challenges. That would force coaches to be sure that the infraction in question is egregious.
Blashill remembers his time on the Red Wings’ bench during Tomas Holmstrom’s final season. He watched the shot-deflecting maven lose a number of goals due to goalie interference. Back then, they were waved off right away, and that seemed fair. These days, questionable goals are rarely disallowed live because officials can typically bank on a video review. Then they go searching for indisputable evidence, and often come up empty.
“They’re not calling them (off) because they have the challenge in play. No chance that Tommy Holmstrom’s interference was way worse than all these things,” said Blashill. “No chance.”
When Ken Holland heads to the GM meetings in March, it’s safe to assume Blashill will send him with some ammo.
“I just talked to him,” Blashill said.