Thoughts on cross-checking, Islanders-Bruins, pushing refs to make calls

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy justifies his comments after Game 5, says it was a bit of gamesmanship, says he’ll always stick up for his captain, says he thought he was civil enough and didn’t deserve a fine, but is ready to move on from it.

“Push them in.”

Over and over I’ve heard coaches watching video talk to one another and say something like “Smitty’s gotta push him in there. Their guy’s able to grab the loose puck and take off with it. He should never be able to get out of that pile.”

“Push them in” is in reference to puck battles in the corner, which generally consist of two offensive players trying to get the puck moving in the O-zone, and two defensive players trying to kill movement and dig the puck free. One of the two defensive players is usually in the thick of the battle, with the other a step back from the pile to ensure they don’t get burned by a puck popping free. It’s his job to contain the outermost offensive player by “pushing him in” to the pile … with cross-checks.

Legal ones, of course.

Here’s the thing about cross-checks, which have become a hot button issue this post-season, particularly in the Islanders-Bruins series: how they’re called is utterly subjective, it has to be, and it always is going to be. Even the “call the rulebook” zealots are going to have to accept some measure of cross-checking or cross-pushing or cross-controlling, however much they want to water it down. That doesn’t mean we can’t do a better job calling the bad ones, there just has to be a subjective cut-off somewhere.

We accept that hockey is a physical sport, a contact one, and to some extent it has to be. This is true in international play, the women’s game, youth hockey, you name it -- there’s too many bodies fighting for small spaces to make it contact-free. So to defend someone as it currently stands, we’ve said that you cannot take your hand off your stick to do it. It’s an insta-penalty these days, called holding, whether much of a hold takes place or not. So, everybody’s got two hands on their stick.

You can’t slash down on opposing sticks anymore because composite sticks break pretty readily, so that's just begging for two minutes. All you can do, really, is stand in someone’s way, and try to control their body with “cross-pushes,” as you’ve got both hands on your stick.

How these "cross-pushes" are generally accepted: on the opposing player's hips (not back), with your hands closer together than farther apart, and here’s the big one, contact with the player has to happen at the start of the cross-check motion so you’re pushing them where you want to push them like a broom sweeping away dirt, rather than the contact happening at the end of the cross-check motion, which is more likely to hurt and knock people off-balance a dangerous distance from the boards.

You see the issue here is “how far into the cross-check/cross-push motion is it OK to start making contact with the offensive player?” Whatever your stance is on this, it has to be somewhere. Generally, as the temperature of a game ramps up and people defend more tenaciously, it gets harder to pick out the ones that are OK and the ones that aren’t, which of course refs try very hard to do and mostly do well.

An example? In a 1-1 hockey game with less than three minutes to go, this got Sean Kuraly a two-minute minor for cross-checking.

That angle looks bad, doesn’t it? I’m sure some people want to see that called every time, and from my point of view, Kuraly invites the ref to make a subjective call, so he’s not exempt from blame.

Only, I don’t think that’s a penalty. His hands are low on Kyle Palmieri’s hips and close together. It's more of a push than a jarring blow, and frankly, I think the Islanders savvy vet sells it a bit. Guys know to expect contact here. Like a good flop in basketball, and the value of what was created, I’d call it a pretty nice play.

At the end of the day, though, it’s on Kuraly for putting the ref in that spot in that moment, but you can see why he’d be frustrated given the score and timing of the huge playoff game they’re in.

That brings us to David Krejci’s cup-check on Mathew Barzal (which was arbitrarily deemed a slash because “he doinked him in the beans” isn’t an official penalty), and the Barzal cross-checks that preceded it.

Generally, attempts at “pushing them in” are allowed by referees, as they aren’t violent and are in service of controlling an opponent’s body, which is the crux of defending. Barzal doesn’t want Krejci to be able to step back from the pile, see the puck and pull it free, then have room to take it where he wants. Barzal wants Krejci stapled to the glass, like Chris Pronger on Justin Bieber.

So, are these cross-whatevers from Barzal too much?

My answer is no, with the context being that I like the battling aspect of the game; I think it reveals a lot about players and their will, and part of what makes the game entertaining.

Part of being a player in these moments is that cross-checks are a subjective call, meaning it’s one of the places you can actually give it a little to your opponent, so of course guys push the envelope. Half the time they’re daring the ref to call it. But I think Barzal is just on the right side of the line here (the first one is the hardest, but it’s when Krejci is closest to the pile so it doesn’t feel dangerous), even though some of the contact comes away from his body on the cross-check motion.

Part of the problem with calling cross-checking today is the same problem we had with hooking many years ago. Everyone did it, and the refs would only call it if you went down. Palmieri went down, there’s a penalty. Krejci didn't, there’s no penalty. I certainly don’t want us in a position where we encourage diving to get calls, but I can’t see how moving the line to allow less or more cross-stick contact eliminates it from happening.

Hooking wasn’t battling, though. It sucked joy from the game and was something we could just outright eliminate. As long as players have to have two hands on their sticks to defend, we’re not going to be able to eliminate players from using the shaft of their sticks to control and defend in their own zone. So no matter where you stand on the “call-everything-o-meter,” you’re just moving the line of where the ref blows the whistle, not eliminating the subjectivity of the call. There’s always going to be some measure of pushing, the only thing that differs is how much you personally want to see.

This is how we end up where we did with Bruce Cassidy’s post-game comments on the refereeing, and the whole “New York Saints” thing.

Cassidy was fined $25,000 for those comments, but you have to wonder if at times that’s money well spent. Calls are subjective, so coaches can get in refs' heads, which is part of why they complain after borderline calls. If they can convince the refs they’ve been unfair in their decision-making, the hope is the next call is more likely to go their way. You control what you can as a coach, and I appreciate him trying to make a difference with the people in black and white.

In Game 6 Wednesday night, the Bruins and Islanders will get the same officiating crew they had in Game 2, which saw nine penalties called, five against the Bruins and four against the Isles. It’s possible the Bruins have the league’s attention and might be able to change a ref’s opinion on one call in Game 6, which might make all the difference. But the Islanders finished the regular season with the lowest number of penalties taken of any team in the league, so it's harder to make a case that they deserve more penalties now.

Islanders and Bruins aside, cross-checking and cross-pushing are going to remain a theme of the post-season as it moves along, as the battle level stays high and every inch of ice only matters more. Refs have a hard job, but they’re paid to decide what’s across the arbitrarily agreed-upon line, and they by-and-large do a great job of it.

As Cassidy knows from his playing days, the pain of a cross-check hurts a little. The pain of losing playoff games because of refereeing -- whether that’s perception or reality -- that hurts a lot. And unfortunately, both pains will continue to be felt as long as people play hockey.

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