COLUMBUS, Ohio – Mike Babcock didn’t have a man in the penalty box.
He still felt shame.
The Toronto Maple Leafs coach made an error in judgment that could have cost his team in a big way by choosing not to send a man to the penalty box after Roman Polak was assessed a five-minute major against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.
Rule 20.3 stipulates that a team can wait until a stoppage in play while killing off a major penalty before sending someone to the box. The only problem? There wasn’t one, and the Leafs wound up giving Columbus a power play that stretched six minutes 54 seconds with no whistles as a result.
“It’s all my fault,” Babcock said. “Let’s not kid ourselves: It’s me. And you’ve got two assistants on the bench and you’ve got two in the video room and then you’ve got 15 players sitting on the bench and we can’t get that done right?
“Now, often it happens and you just fire a guy in, but obviously it went the whole time and we didn’t do anything about it.”
Amazingly, the Leafs limited Columbus to just one shot during that entire man advantage.
Given that they were clinging to a 3-2 lead early in the third period when Polak was sent off, it was a crucial sequence. They skated away with a 5-2 victory.
“It helped win us a hockey game,” said centre Brian Boyle, one of nine skaters the team used to kill off the penalty. “It gets two points for us and, at this point of the season, that’s what’s important.”
None of the players could recall seeing a similar situation in the past.
It led to some confusion on the bench in the moment because the rule prevented the Leafs from throwing another player over the boards once the original five-minute penalty expired. Both Boyle and Eric Fehr tried unsuccessfully to get a whistle by icing the puck before Boyle eventually flipped it into the Blue Jackets bench.
“We were just losing our minds on the bench, trying to get a whistle,” said forward Auston Matthews.
“I didn’t know if it was a new rule, to be honest,” added goalie Frederik Andersen. “So I wasn’t sure.”
The Leafs played an extremely physical game at Nationwide Arena – no coincidence, according to Babcock, because he felt the team was “abused” during a 5-2 loss here in February.
“We didn’t like that very much,” he said. “And so we thought it was important to respond.”
Polak is scheduled to have a hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety on Thursday and will likely be suspended.
He was assessed a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct after hammering Oliver Bjorkstrand at 1:00 of the third period. The Blue Jackets winger was left bleeding from the face after skating along the boards in the offensive zone and turning just before getting hit.
“He did a little turn on me there,” said Polak. “I wanted to hit him, no doubt. Was it a penalty? Maybe yeah it was. It was just a bad spot – I was already committed to it when he kind of turned.
“That’s what happens.”
It resulted in one of the more unusual sequences you’ll ever see.
The Leafs were able to laugh about it afterwards, with some bemoaning the fact they only officially got credit for going 1-for-1 on the penalty kill. They were forced to work extra hard to get it, with defenceman Matt Hunwick playing an incredible four minutes of that continuous 6:54 stretch.
He joked on the way to the bus that he may need some extra sleep with another game against New Jersey looming on Thursday night.
Given how tight the playoff chase is, Babcock was thinking about how disastrous his decision could have been.
“I’ll tell you I’m doing better now,” he said. “In hindsight, if that had cost you it’d be terrible, right? So that’ll never happen in my lifetime again.
“I can tell you I will never wait to put a guy in or any of that – you’re going whether you like it or not.”