Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said his "heart breaks" for his players because he believes Nazem Kadri's overtime winner in Game 4 shouldn't have counted.
Cooper took one question and appeared to be emotional as he talked about the loss, saying it was one of the hardest losses of his career. He then told reporters he'd talk to them tomorrow before walking away from the podium.
"We're all in this together, players, coaches, refs, everybody," Cooper said. "But this one is going to sting much more than others... You're going to see what I mean when you see the winning goal.
"My heart breaks for the players because we should still be playing."
While Cooper was vague about why he thought the goal shouldn't have counted, Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde later told team broadcaster Dave Randorf that "an interesting change... was the difference."
"We're probably talking about a 50-feet change... it's a pretty bad look," Lalonde added.
Video shows that the Avalanche had six players on the ice when Kadri scored the winning goal. Nathan MacKinnon was about to step off the ice as Kadri — who had just jumped over the boards — received a pass, skated in and scored.
However, Rule 74.1 (too many men on the ice) states: "When a player is retiring from the ice surface and is within the five foot (5’) limit of his players’ bench, and his substitute is on the ice, then the retiring player shall be considered off the ice." MacKinnon appears to be within that distance by the time Kadri receives the puck.
Following Cooper's comments, the NHL released a statement to The AP's Stephen Whyno.
"A too many men on the ice penalty is a judgement call that can be made by any of the four on-ice officials," the statement reads. "Following the game, Hockey Operations met with the four officials as is their normal protocol. In discussing the winning goal, each of the four officials advised that they did not see a too many men on the ice situation on the play.
"This call is not subject to video review either by Hockey Ops or the on-ice officials."
Members of the Avalanche were surprised to hear Cooper's comments when informed about them during their own press conferences.
"I'm not quite sure what (Cooper) was thinking, why it shouldn't have counted," Kadri said. "The puck hit the back of the net, end of story."
"I didn't hear any confusion," Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar added.
Further fuel was added to this debate when the game sheet the NHL handed out to reporters on site in Tampa indicated six Avalanche skaters were on the ice when the goal was scored. However, one of those players listed was defenceman Erik Johnson, who upon video review was not on the ice. The NHL corrected the error on the game sheet posted on its website.
ESPN's Greg Wyshynski reported that the NHL believes this error occurred due to the fact the Avalanche players all jumped on the ice in celebration after Kadri scored.
Whether the goal should have counted or not, the Avalanche will have their first chance to clinch the series and win the Stanley Cup on Friday in Denver.