Prust’s gripe was better off done in private

Check out this great angle of Brandon Prust jawing with referee Brad Watson, who then tees up the Habs forward.

Well, Brandon Prust gets one wish: Brad Watson won’t be doing any more Montreal games this series.

There is no way the NHL can assign him after the Game 2 confrontation with the Canadiens’ forward. And, we’ll really learn what the league thinks of Watson’s performance when conference final referee assignments are announced.

Prust unloaded on Watson after the game, saying the official “kept provoking me,” called him “every name in the book … a piece of you know what, an (expletive), coward, said he’d drive me right out of this building.

“That’s the ref he is. He tries to play God. He tries to control the game and he did that tonight.”

What created this verbal beatdown? “I thought the original call was kind of soft,” Prust said. “I let him know on the way to the penalty box.”

The NHL does not allow officials to talk to the media, so we don’t know Watson’s side of the story. This is probably like a breakup: both sides have their version, and the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Absent any sound from the on-ice microphones, this is what we can see: video shows Watson skating away from Prust after calling the penalty, and you clearly can pick out Prust using the word “soft.” What else came with it? That’s open to interpretation.

Prust is behind Watson as the two go towards the penalty box, still talking. I can’t tell you exactly what he said, but I have my suspicions and I’m not sure it’s so innocent. Then, the Watson turns back with a, “What’s that?” and awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay we go.

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Watson and Chris Lee, the referees in this game, also worked Game 6 of the first-round Ottawa series. Lee blew down the play where Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored on Carey Price, only to have it disallowed by the early whistle. You could see how upset both of them were. I wondered if Watson got mad because he was thinking, “You’re giving me crap at this — after that?”

This is not like another massive referee/player confrontation we all remember fondly, Stephane Auger versus Alex Burrows. In January 2010, Auger sought out Burrows on the ice, beginning a stern lecture anyone with working eyes couldn’t miss. Sunday night, the Prust/Watson conversation had zero traction before Prust decided to make an issue of it post-game.

Undoubtedly, he’s embarrassed by the bad penalties he took. The Canadiens killed those two, but did not escape another that followed 19 seconds after the expiration of Prust’s. A Chernobyl-esque meltdown followed, a 6-2 defeat featuring four Lightning power-play goals and the rebirth of Steven Stamkos.

Fans walked out of the arena wondering if this was the last Montreal home game of the season. (My bet: no.) Prust figured talking about Watson would be better than talking about that. Watson is not publicly allowed to defend himself, and it’s easy to take a player’s word as gospel when referees are involved.

There is a better way to handle this. Privately. Senators coach Dave Cameron barely made a peep after the Game 6 mistake referenced above. Earlier this season, when P.K. Subban was annoyed at being publicly shamed for diving — twice — he reached out to NHL executive vice-president Colin Campbell to find out why. Campbell declined to reveal the specifics of the conversation, except to say he was really impressed with how it went. (Another source said Subban was told the players and GMs think this is a huge problem and needs to be addressed.)

Since then, it hasn’t been an issue. Meanwhile, Subban had the best year of his career. Coincidence? Unlikely.

Watson’s place in all this does need to be examined. I praised him in 2011 for his role in making sure Brent Seabrook stayed off the ice after taking an enormous hit from Raffi Torres in a Chicago/Vancouver playoff series. That’s what an official is supposed to do.

Checking with a few players and coaches last night, he got a favourable review. But, after I tweeted that he was not known as a hothead, a few more texts came back disagreeing with this assessment — that his fuse has shortened considerably.

I followed up with a few more veteran players today, and two stood out. Both came from guys who’ve played at least a decade.

“I’ve never seen Brad Watson do that to anyone,” one said. “Prust shouldn’t have gone public, but there is no way he is lying. You can’t make that up.”

The other player said Watson rates well compared to his peers, “… but demands respect. If he gets it, he’s in a good mood. If he doesn’t he’ll snap.”

Those two quotes are telling. Prust said something — probably not as innocent as he claims — and Watson snapped. Teams know tendencies of the refs. Prust had to keep his cool. But, in an emotional post-season game, so does Watson. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but most names should’t hurt you — especially if you have a Twitter account.

It is telling that Michel Therrien, who made the missed overtime offside call a focal point of his Game 1 remarks, wasn’t going where Prust went Sunday night. That loss wasn’t about the referees. One year ago, Tampa lost its composure after some bad breaks and got swept.

This time, Montreal is in danger of the same.

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