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Capitals were robbed, the East is least, and more notes

I've looked at the replay of the controversial "no goal" that played at least a part in ending the Washington Capitals' win streak at 14 games on Wednesday night.

I've read the rule book and the interpretation of the rules that the officials are said to have given to Caps coach Bruce Boudreau.

I think the Caps got jobbed.

I don't say that lightly, because 97 times out of 100 I believe the NHL replay system gets things right. But this is also a league that once overruled a play on the ice because "the official attempted to make the correct call but just wasn't able to get his whistle to his lips in a timely manner."

The issue here isn't whether the puck crossed the goal line, which was obvious. The issue is with an interpretation of the rules. In this case, the NHL seems to have gotten it wrong.

If you look at the video, things seem reasonably clear. Montreal goaltender Carey Price makes a tough save on Washington forward Mike Knuble and falls. The puck moves well outside the crease and into the sphere of influence (read: between the legs) of Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill. Coming in like a CSX train is Ovechkin, who explodes on Gill. The monster-sized defenseman falls and the puck caroms off him, under Price and into the net. The ruling on the ice -- and it was an emphatic one � is that a goal has been scored.

Under review, however, the goal was disallowed. Boudreau was told that Price didn't get a chance to play the puck.

Well, so what?

The collision took place outside the crease. The hit on Gill was perfectly within the rules and it's certainly not Ovechkin's fault that Price was already on his backside, as a result of his play on Knuble.

There are a slew of rules regarding goaltender interference, but in this case none seem to apply. Sure the NHL has established some precedent in this regard, especially after several teams -- mostly notably the Detroit Red Wings -- had perfected the tactic of taking a defenseman into the goaltender and creating a scramble that makes it difficult if not impossible for the goalie to play the puck. The NHL's redefined approach appeared to be that this constituted goaltender interference because the defenseman wasn't necessarily playing the puck. He was simply being pushed into the crease in an effort to disrupt the goalie's ability to play it.

But that wasn't the case here.

There are several interpretations of the goalie interference rules that might apply.

One says: "In the event that a goalkeeper has been pushed into the net together with the puck by an attacking player after making a stop, the goal will be disallowed. If applicable, appropriate penalties will be assessed."

Well, that didn't happen. The puck crossed the goal line off Gill as he, Price and Ovechkin ended up in a pile in the crease. It should be noted that no penalties were assessed on Ovechkin, a reasonably clear indication that he'd done nothing wrong. It should also be noted that the puck was the first thing to cross the line, not Price, Gill or Ovechkin.

Another rule says: "The overriding rationale of this rule is that a goalkeeper should have the ability to move freely within his goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player. If an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by his actions, impairs the goalkeeper's ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed."

That's a reasonable rule as well, but Price put himself on the ice via his save on Knuble and was in no way hindered by Ovechkin, who was well outside the crease (as was Gill) when he knocked the defenseman down. Looking at the tape, it's difficult-to-impossible to claim that Ovechkin impaired the goalie's ability to defend his goal.

One more: "In the event that the puck is under a player in or around the crease area (deliberately or otherwise), a goal cannot be scored by pushing this player together with the puck into the goal. If applicable, the appropriate penalties will be assessed, including a penalty shot if deemed to be covered in the crease deliberately."

This one clearly didn't apply, simply because the puck wasn't under a player. The tape clearly shows it going off Gill and under Price en route to crossing the line -- a fact borne out again by the officials ruling that a goal was scored and no penalties were called.

Gill had the puck between his feet and it was in his area of control (if not exactly on his stick). The league has ruled on numerous occasions that such a situation gives a player "possession." Ovechkin reacted in kind. He blasted the 6-7, 240-pound Gill off the puck (an impressive feat in its own right) and the force of his hit was so huge that it knocked Gill down. You know the rest.

It was a goal. If the NHL felt that Ovechkin had done something wrong, the officials would have called a goalie interference penalty. They didn't. In the end, the NHL blew the call and the view from here is they owe the Caps a letter that says so.

If you were picking a spot where Washington's streak would come to an end, you certainly wouldn't have Montreal at the top of your list (unless, of course, you subscribe to the "ghosts" of the old Forum and the new Montreal arena). The Canadiens were largely banged up, not playing particularly well, and they didn't get competent goaltending throughout the game.

Controversial goal aside, however, the Caps didn't get outstanding goaltending either -- and they used two netminders in the contest. It shouldn't all fall on the goalies, however, as Washington seemed to take the Canadiens lightly and didn't make near the defensive effort necessary to win. That happens a lot with teams that believe they can score -- and win -- at will. It's the number one reason why hockey-watchers are still thinking that the Caps still don't have what it takes -- in mental discipline and in goal -- to win it all this season.

Contrary to the cries of many in the Capitals community who believe I don't respect Washington, I picked them to battle the Penguins for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final in SI.com's preseason preview. (I also picked Ovechkin to win the Hart Trophy.) I didn't predict that they would win the Stanley Cup due to lack of defense and maturity. But this is still the NHL's most exciting and enjoyable team to watch. Last Sunday's come-from-behind win vs. Pittsburgh was by far the most entertaining game I've seen this season, but the Caps still have work to do even in a decidedly weak Eastern Conference. Don't rule out a move or two at the trade deadline in early March.

The state of the East beyond Washington, Pittsburgh and New Jersey seems to be in decline. In recent weeks, the once high-flying Buffalo Sabres have blown a 13-point lead in the Northeast Division and are now tied with the Ottawa Senators. The Rangers, Canadiens and even the Senators have been on-and-off teams (although the Sens are starting to show some consistency) all season. Virtually everyone else is a wannabe or an also-ran.

The conference is so weak that James Mirtle, who writes one of the better blogs and annually at this point in the season makes a prediction that almost always holds up regarding the points needed to make the playoffs , has the cut-off point at a relatively low 87. That's well off his projected Western Conference number of 94 points, but when you consider how Western teams have feasted on Eastern opponents this season, it makes perfect sense.

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