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NHL tries to restore order

Refs seem to have rediscovered the idea that sending a player to the box and leaving his team in a potentially costly penalty-kill is one of the best ways to curb on-ice mayhem. (Mark Goldman/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

Perhaps Wednesday will go down as the day the NHL regained some control over the Stanley Cup playoffs and did it in the most logical manner -- having the referees call penalties rather than "let the boys play."

It was obvious that the refs were letting very little go in both the Penguins-Flyers and Rangers-Senators games. The result was often power plays that cost the offending teams and it sent a strong message that the NHL was trying to reclaim the tournament and dampen the brutal atmosphere that surrounded the opening games.

There were a whopping seven power play goals in the Penguins' 10-3 whooping of the Flyers on Wednesday night, with Pittsburgh staying alive despite its inadequate goaltending so far in this round. The Flyers' netminding, if you want to call it that, has been no better and the suspicions many (including us) had about both Marc-Andre Fleury and Ilya Bryzgalov now appear justified. In the Senators' 3-2 overtime win over the Rangers, there were three power play goals. Out west, the Canucks got two PPGs in their 3-1 win over the Kings to stay alive in that series.

On TSN, Kerry Fraser recognized what was going on and praised the officials for taking control (video). In the NBC Sports Network studio, Mike Milbury grumbled that the refs were calling too much in the Battle of Pennsylvania game, and so did Ken Warren of The Ottawa Citizen, who was watching the Rangers-Sens tilt.

But the fact is, the no-nonsense approach is what was needed, as Pierre McGuire commented during the second period of the Pens-Flyers game. (Sorry, a commercial precedes the clip.)

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And McGuire restated it during the third period when the refs tossed a quartet of players for the remainder of the game.

"This might be the only way to get it through the players' heads that are involved in this series," he commented. "Cease and desist with the silliness or you won't play. And it's the only way you can punish a player: Don't let him play."

The refs might have called even more. Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, for example, leveled Senators center Jason Spezza in the first period, exploding his hands into Spezza's head.

Carrying the puck in the Rangers' zone, Spezza's head was down, however, and that can render this a permissible play under NHL Rule 48 if the refs decide that he put himself in a vulnerable position. Staal told Katie Strang of ESPN New York that he didn't think he did anything wrong, which is how the refs saw it, while some in Canada saw it differently. Regardless, Spezza returned to play and Ottawa staged an impressive comeback to tie the series after falling behind 2-0 on a pair of Rangers power play goals.

Easing up on the rulebook is one of those things that can either work or backfire in the postseason -- and this year it backfired. When it works, the result is fast hockey with lots of body contact, good flow and few stoppages. The object is to raise the emotion, let the intensity and animosity of the competition take hold and, hopefully, produce compelling action. Stopping play, taking players off the ice, and creating too many power plays that tilt the ice in one direction is seen as counterproductive. So the mantra then becomes, "Let the players decide the outcome, not the referees" and, ideally, only the most egregious fouls or those that prevent a scoring chance get called. Sometimes, maybe even those can get overlooked.

One flaw in letting them play, of course, is that the refs can decide the outcome by overlooking penalties that could affect it. And if the refs call the zero tolerance obstruction or delay of game fouls but let more physical violations go unpunished, it creates an absurd climate.

It's not always a bad formula, however, and it can produce memorable playoff series. But the players have to cooperate by focusing on the game, not on vendettas. Not calling penalties, or not calling enough of them at the right time during the course of a game or a series, will unleash the hounds and propel games out of control. That's what marked so much of the first week of these playoffs.

Despite the braying by some who said the outcry over egregious player behavior was a media creation, it wasn't just the pundits and talking heads who noticed how things were going, as Sarah Orlesky of TSN reported on Wednesday (video). Her segment featured soundbites by a number of NHLers who disliked the direction of the postseason. The Blackhawks' Dave Bolland, for example, complained about the lack of respect NHLers were showing each other, saying, "It's just getting out of control. Things are getting to be a joke around here."

Sharks coach Todd McLellan added, "I think we're seeing a lot of the series are borderline chaos right now."

Rangers forward Mike Rupp said, "There's so many suspensions, head shots, right now, the stuff that's going on, it's nothing like I've seen before."

The Hawks' Jamal Mayers said, "If you let the inmates run the asylum, things will get out of control. I think if they make the punishments strict enough, then you'll see those things be curtailed."

"Sometimes you do something and you don't mean to do it, but you still do it," said the Flyers' Claude Giroux, "And there's also going to be consequences for that."

Chicago captain Jonathan Toews commented on Raffi Torres' hit that knocked Hawks forward Marian Hossa out of action, saying Torres' comments (tweeted here by The Chicago Tribune's Chris Kuc) about feeling that he did nothing wrong indicate "he probably doesn't feel bad about it at all. That's not hockey to me."

Nor the Blues Andy McDonald, who had some very strong words about the climate of the playoffs to ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun which is must reading. Among McDonald's comments: "I just think you watch a game, and is it really better than it was a year or two years ago? Is there less head shots? Certainly the playoffs this year has been a revelation that not much has changed. Guys are still targeting the head and really putting other players in danger and at risk for serious injury. And that's frustrating for a player that's gone through a significant amount of time with that type of injury."

“In all my years of watching the N.H.L., I’ve never seen a first round with this many shenanigans and problems for the league,” former Rangers GM Neil Smith, now a television analyst, told Chris Botta of The New York Times.

On Philadelphia radio station 97.5 The Fanatic, Wayne Gretzky said on Wednesday that he was surprised by how the playoffs had proceeded thus far (audio). “It’s a little bit risqué right now, there’s no question," Gretzky told Tony Bruno and Harry Mayes. "Emotions are high in every aspect. And if you look at every series right now, each and every team is playing with a little bit of a bite, and yeah it’s a little bit surprising. They talk about the Flyers back in the ‘70s –- guys like Bobby Kelly, Moose Dupont and Dave Schultz -— but you never really saw those guys go after guys like Bobby Orr or Phil Esposito. It was just sort of honest, hard, rough-nosed hockey, and it’s changed — there’s no question.”

The NHL on TSN panel discussed the job done by the refs during the first week and offered some solutions for the chaotic play, missed calls and inconsistencies.( video)

Bob McKenzie offered, "I think they have to call more penalties. People are all, 'Oh no, don't do that. Don't ruin the playoffs,' but I mean, it's a little too loosey-goosey and I think it started in the final last year when you saw the Boston Bruins manhandle Daniel Sedin." McKenzie showed the infamous incident of Brad Marchand using Sedin's head like a speedbag...

...and likened it to what Brian Boyle did to the Senators' Erik Karlsson in Game 1 of the Rangers-Senators series this year (video), which earned them both coincidental minors. "Whats happening is bigger, physical players or agitators are taking on more skilled players, where there's been a lot more scrums and in those scrums, people are pushing and hitting each other and starting to get carried away and that's escalating all the problems," McKenzie continued. "They've got to just start sending one guy to the box and a lot more 10-minute misconducts to try and tone things down a little bit and let the players play a little bit."

Others on the TSN panel offered advice for better officiating. Aaron Ward suggested more video review or a coach's challenge be added, looking at the Hossa hit and the potential for added embarrassment that it might have caused since Torres stayed in the game and, potentially, could have been involved in the winning play. That same scenario actually happened this season when the Sabres' Tyler Myers concussed the Canadiens' Scott Gomez, remained in the game and scored the winning goal. Myers was subsequently suspended by the NHL. Torres is now suspended pending his hearing on Friday.

Panelist Marc Crawford, recognizing how fast the NHL is today, admitted that when he coached, he liked it when refs didn't guess at calls, and he admired  how they took heat from the crowd when they didn't penalize a player if they weren't convinced he deserved it. It amounted to something of an endorsement for the "Let the boys play" standard. Host James Duthie suggested that if Crawford was in Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville's place watching the Torres hit on Hossa, he probably wouldn't be so understanding. Crawford responded, "You're probably right."

We'll see if the tighter officiating continues as the round progresses and the NHL tries to reign in its lawlessness.

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