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NHL has a chance to get replay right; Ruff time in Buffalo; more

One of my favorite farcical moments in nightly viewings of the NHL (aside from watching a thug explain how he never intended to hurt the opponent who was just wheeled off the ice on a gurney) is when the down-low referee races in along the goal line, positions himself behind the cage and emphatically, endlessly, points to the puck to signify that a goal has been scored.

Never mind that 99 percent of the time we can see that. Never mind that, according to league officials at least, all goals are reviewed via video replay in-house or in the so called "war room" in Toronto.

It's almost as if the ref has some kind of ultrasensitive sonar that he locks on the puck, tracks its every movement to and over the goal line, and then rushes in the way those hunter shows on TV zoom in to verify that the kill shot was not only good, but clean and, dare we say it, humane.

But here's the problem. While a goal is proclaimed on the ice and via every electronic device known to man, we are left to wonder -- and eventually view -- everything the down-low referee missed or ignored while he was tracking the puck.

The most recent example is the so-called goal scored by Toronto's Colton Orr as he submarined Florida goaltender Scott Clemmensen last week en route to a 3-1 Maple Leafs victory. The call never should have been allowed on the ice and there is no disputing or denying that.

Rookie referee Francis Charron was the overall goat on the play, but he just did what almost every down-low referee does: tracking the puck. Veteran Stephen Walkom, a quality referee who has returned to the ice after being the NHL's Director of Officiating as recently as the 2008-09 season, should have overruled Charron, but there were two noteworthy factors in play:

1) It's not a given that Walkom saw Orr torpedo Clemmensen.

2) There seems to be a total cone of silence when it comes to overruling a call by another referee, as if protecting a member of the tribe is more important than getting the call right.

Colin Campbell, the NHL Director of Hockey Operations, all but admitted that second point, chalking up Charron's call to a "rookie mistake" and pointing out that it would have been in the league's and the game's best interests if perhaps Walkom had overruled or at least held a conference on the ice to ask Charron if he happened to notice the goalie interference.

All of this prompted a rather insightful though thoroughly sarcastic observation from Panthers coach Pete DeBoer to reporters after the game: "It's obvious I don't know what goalie interference is ... I don't know what hitting from behind is. I don't know what interference is. I need to call the league and get myself a tutorial on what those penalties are because, if those aren't hits from behind in the first period on [Dmitry] Kulikov, and then goalie interference in the third period, then I obviously don't understand the description of the rules. I don't make that call.''

Nice way to avoid the fine, Pete. We should point out that Clemmensen said Charron told him he was outside the crease when he was struck by Orr. Anyone who watches the video can disprove that in a heartbeat, and one could argue, just by looking at it, that Charron was barely in position to make his emphatic goal call, let alone determine that Clemmensen ended up face-down on the ice while outside his crease.

One could also argue that this incident is even more outrageous than the shootout controversy last season when some young referees had a conflict as to whether Steve Ott of the Dallas Stars had scored the winning goal against the Detroit Red Wings, but there is a substantial difference.

In the Ott case, the goal was decided by video replay because all goals are reviewed. In the Orr scenario, everyone eventually knew what the right call was, but the NHL couldn't do a thing about it because collisions in the crease are not reviewable. That, of course, begs the question: why spend so much time, effort and money (it is, after all, a two-referee system) watching to see whether the puck is across the line while hardly making any effort to keep tabs on what's happening in the crease or around the goalcage?

Because a goal was scored, why shouldn't Orr's crease infraction be part of the review? It's a scenario not unlike the one that befuddled Commissioner Dud, er, Bud Selig and Major League Baseball when Detroit's Armando Galarraga was on the cusp of pitching a perfect game. Umpire Jim Joyce botched the final call, a clear out at first base, and denied Galarraga what everyone knew was a perfect game.

Selig could have, simply by exercising the power of his office for the greater good of baseball, reversed the umpire's mistake and let justice prevail. But to do so would mean that he opens the game to second guessing of all officials, and since he's not an advocate of that or video replay in general, Selig let the bad call stand. To his credit, Joyce admitted his error immediately and baseball, especially Galarraga, turned his anguished candor into a feel-good moment. But that was just a moment. The legacy of that blown call is that Galarraga was denied what everyone knows to be the truth.

Which begs the question: when did rules move to a position of trumping truth?

Bad calls happen, but in an age of replay and the clearest, most high-tech technology ever available, there is little reason why they can't be reversed.

Florida's Dale Tallon has floated the idea of having NHL GMs sign off on a coach's challenge, much like they have in the NFL. It's time consuming, but it does allow the NFL to get calls right and that speaks volumes for the integrity of the game.

Even if Tallon's proposal falls short -- and it appears it will not pass muster with the majority of GMs -- the NHL could see its way clear to expand video review to include foul play. An even easier and, done properly, more effective approach would be to mandate a consensus from the on-ice officials.

The controversy on the Ott goal was that the down-low referee, the one who was right on top of the play, initially signaled no goal while his on-ice partner, some 60 feet away, ruled otherwise. The natural thing to do would be to convene the two refs and the two linesmen to get a majority opinion. Why hockey seldom (if ever?) does this defies both reason and explanation.

In Orr's case, the linesman down low had a clear view of the hit on Clemmensen and had to know it was goalie interference all the way. Had Walkom, the senior official on the ice, simply called the unit together, there would have been enough of an objection to dismiss the initial call when there clearly was an interference call that needed to be made.

It's not brain surgery. It's not even expanding the use of high tech. It's a simple matter of overlooking egos and the natural defense mechanism of covering for a colleague even if it means doing so at the expense of making the right call.

The old argument is that human error is a part of every game, and that's true. The better argument is that sports should make every effort to eliminate those errors. Baseball had its chance and blew it.

Hockey has a similar opportunity. It should take advantage of it.

It's hard to get past the hype machine surrounding Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, with good reason: they are living highlight films every time they set skate to ice, but you can't help but wonder when Tampa Bay's Stephen Stamkos will get his rightful place in what should be a triple crown atop the NHL's standout scorers.

After all, Crosby had to go to the final minutes of Pittsburgh's final game of last season to match Stamkos' 51 goals. And if you saw the video of Stamkos's forehand-to-backhand move against outstanding netminder Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoneix Coyotoes last Saturday night, well, it's not Ovechkin scoring while lying on his back, but it's a highlight goal and one that gave Stamkos the goals (10) and points (20) lead after his first 11 games of the season. He's five points ahead of Crosby and Ovechkin -- and three goals ahead of Ovechkin and four ahead of Crosby -- even though those two have played 12 and 13 games respectively.

It's early and scoring projections are a lot like preseason predictions, debatable even under the best of circumstances, but Stamkos is on pace for 150 points this season. That's something that hasn't been achieved in the NHL since Mario Lemieux (161) in 1995-96, well over a decade ago.

Another player confounding the experts is Atlanta's Dustin Byfuglien. The Thrashers switched the former Chicago Blackhawk from forward to defense, but it hasn't hurt his scoring exploits. Big Buff has five goals so far, three of them game-winners. He scored one against Buffalo in overtime after he went flying past a partial check from center Derek Roy and then twisted defenseman Steve Montador into the proverbial hockey pretzel before whipping the puck past Vezina-winning goalie Ryan Miller. It's rare, even on a weak offensive team, that a defenseman leads a club in scoring, but Byfuglien has scored three goals and three assists in his last six games and his 12 points lead all Thrashers.

There were doubts that Byfuglien could excel at the blueline even though he played the position for a time before moving to forward, but Thrashers GM Rick Dudley didn't buy into them. Dudley has one of the best eyes for talent in the game today and he made the deal to get Byfuglien based on what he saw while working out of Chicago's hockey department before he signed on at Atlanta.

Going into Thursday night's games, the Thrashers were second in the NHL in goals scored (39), trailing only the Blackhawks (43), who have played three more games. So much for Craig Ramsay's oft-misstated label of being a defensive minded coach.

Assuming he lasts that long, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff will step behind the Sabres bench for the 1000th time next Wednesday in New Jersey. We say assuming because the Sabres have been awful so far, having dropped four straight after Wednesday's 5-2 loss to Boston in Buffalo. Not only is Ruff's team last overall in the NHL, it's still winless (0-5-1) at home, a far cry from the team that won the Northeast Division last season.

We've said before in this space that the Sabres are likely to make a player move before ever moving on Ruff (he's being inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame on the evening of Thurs. Nov. 4 based on his being the winningest Sabres coach of all time), but there's no doubt that the situation is dicey.

Ruff has made a point of shouldering the blame for the Sabres' problems to date, going so far as to say: "It's my responsibility to pick them (the players) up. It's on my shoulders. First and foremost, it's mine. Pick them up, put them back together. Pick them up, get them ready to play. That's all on my shoulders."

It's a noble statement, but it's reasonable to think that a number of players seem to be tuning out their coach. Ruff made a point this week of telling both players and fans to forget about the Sabres' lousy 3-7-2 October, and that the game against Boston on Wednesday night was to be the team's refocusing point.

That hardly went well as the Sabres gave up two shorthanded goals in the first period, left rookie netminder Jhonas Enroth (in for the injured Miller) totally exposed, replaced him with Patrick Lalime (who has yet to win home or away this season) and generally failed to perform until they came up with far too little (two goals) far too late (down 4-0).

Ruff put a huge focus on the fact the Sabres' opponent was the Bruins, the team that ousted them in six games in the first round of the playoffs last spring, and his team responded with a non-effort.

"There's not a damn thing we can do about that crap, that's behind us," Ruff said before the Boston matchup in Buffalo. "There's not one person who is happy, including myself. I find it embarrassing. We've moved on. I told the team that we're going to focus on one game."

The result was arguably their worst performance of the season. Hard to say the team has "moved on" after a performance like that.

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