BROOKLYN, N.Y. – If a play is offside by such an infinitesimal degree that it can’t be detected by the human eye, is it offside at all?
At this most critical stage of the NHL season the answer is currently yes. But there’s a strong argument to be made that it should be no.
We are treading uncomfortably close to Brett-Hull-skate-in-the-crease territory here. After just five days of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there’s every reason to believe that video review of an offside play is going to factor into a key moment in the championship series.
Maybe more than one.
It’s certainly played a big role in a couple important games already, including the emotional 4-3 overtime win by the New York Islanders over Florida at Barclays Center on Sunday night. The Islanders appeared to be dead and buried at 4:08 of the second period when Aaron Ekblad scored to give Florida an apparent 3-0 lead.
However, New York elected to challenge the zone entry that preceded the goal and after several minutes of review it was overturned. Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau had the puck knocked into his skates by Ryan Pulock while crossing the blue line and, as it turns out, entered the zone a fraction of a millisecond early.
In real time the transgression passed virtually unnoticed. It took a sharp eye from Islanders video coach Matt Bertani to prompt the challenge. Huberdeau was the one carrying the puck and even he wasn’t sure how the review would turn out: “I mean it was really close. Who can see it?”
That’s exactly the point.
On his overturned goal, and the one scored by Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko and taken back on Friday night, video review didn’t correct a blown call. We essentially had goals taken away by minutiae.
It’s unreasonable to expect a linesman to be able to make these calls with 100 per cent accuracy in real time at the speed the game is played. Should that really negate a goal that comes several seconds after?
The NHL’s general managers debated the merits of expanded video review for years because they knew it would open a can of worms, and when they decided to institute a coach’s challenge for offside plays this season they did so to eliminate the occasional egregious error that had slipped through in the past.
No one liked to see those. But watching these goals wiped away now is worse.
Where this overlaps with the Hull situation is that the spirit of the rule is not being enforced here. Back then, the NHL wanted to cut down on goaltender interference when it said that goals couldn’t be scored with an attacking player in the crease starting with the 1996-97 season.
All of a sudden you had goals being taken away because the tip of a blade entered the blue paint nowhere near the goalie. The league even made the crease smaller before scrubbing the rule entirely after Hull scored the Cup-clinching goal for Dallas in triple overtime of the 1999 final with his foot in the crease.
That provides an eerie parallel to what we’re seeing in these playoffs.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was behind the bench of that Dallas team and had an interesting reaction when St. Louis lost Game 2 of its series with Chicago, thanks in large part to the Tarasenko goal being called back in the third period.
“We’re not playing just a playoff team, we’re playing a champion, and that’s the way it is,” said Hitchcock. “Like I said, I’ve been on that side of it, I know how it works. If we want to knock them off we’re going to have to be better. If we’re the same it’s going to go to them every time. …
“Tie goes to the runner. What can I say?”
It all comes down to what mistakes you can live with.
Video replay is an issue a number of sports are grappling with and it’s easy to understand why. You want to get the calls right, especially since technology allows you to do it with greater certainty, but you can go too far in that pursuit.
For as long as the games are officiated by human beings there are going to be mistakes.
Interestingly enough, there were no sour grapes to be found in the Panthers dressing room after Sunday night’s game. They’re a team that has had a lot of successful challenges this season and can live with one going against them.
“Our guy said it was offside a little bit,” said coach Gerard Gallant. “It was a tough play and it was real close. They challenged it and they won the challenge. Nothing we can do about it.”
That may be the hardest part of all.
Discussions will be had after the season about tweaking video review, but we’re stuck with the current rules for now. So whenever a goal is scored during these playoffs the question has to be asked: Was it onside?