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Vague goalie interference interpretations plague playoffs

This just in: NHL goaltender interference rulings can be complicated.

In addition to the Nashville Predators’ goal on Corey Crawford in the first round that we’ve already reviewed, the early rounds of this year’s playoffs have provided ample opportunities for a deep dive into the details of Rule 69 and its variations.

Lets begin with the easiest ones.

Second Round: Edmonton vs Anaheim, Game 2, April 28, Honda Center

The Oilers’ Mark Letestu (55) clearly engages Anaheim defenseman Brandon Montour (71) in the slot, then leverages his position to push Montour onto Ducks’ goaltender John Gibson in his crease. Adam Larsson’s shot from the point actually hits Letestu in the back and ricochets to Zack Kassian (44), who puts it in the net. The goal is immediately waved off, and Letestu is assessed a 2-minute penalty for goalkeeper interference based on this passage of Rule 69.1, and the appropriate section of Table 16.

Seen from overhead, there is no doubt as to the interference call that disallows Kassian’s goal, nor is there any argument that the referee was well within his right to call the penalty on Letestu.

 

Second Round: Pittsburgh vs Washington, Game 3, May 1, PPG Paints Center

Braden Holtby makes a save with his left pad. Chris Kunitz (14), without any “assistance” from a defensive player, skates into the crease, makes contact with Holtby’s left pad, and dislodges the puck into the goal. The goal was allowed by the on-ice officials, but was quickly overturned when Barry Trotz challenged.

On review, this was a very straightforward call.

The only real issue here is that, preferably, the goal would have been waved off initially. If the Capitals had already used their timeout or been denied a previous coach’s challenge, this goal would have incorrectly counted. Of course, plays like this one aren’t always so simple, as the First Round matchup between the Senators and Bruins showed.

First Round: Boston vs Ottawa, Game 5, April 21, Canadian Tire Center

The Bruins’ Noel Acciari (55) appears to score a game-winning goal late in the first overtime period, but the goal is disallowed by the on-ice referee because of goaltender interference on Boston’s Sean Kuraly (52).

On replay review, the on-ice ruling was upheld. It’s also important to note that because this was in overtime, no coach’s challenge was necessary to have the on-ice ruling reviewed. Kuraly, ironically, would score in the second overtime session to prolong the series before Ottawa would take the series in 6 games.

There was a good deal of debate about the ruling.

Here are the relevant portions of Rules 69.1 and 69.3.

The significant question to answer is whether Kuraly’s initial contact with Anderson was, in fact, “incidental.”

According to Rule 69.3, the attacking player must make a reasonable effort to avoid initiating contact with the goalie whether inside or outside the crease. The issue isn’t whether Kuraly sought to minimize the contact once it occurred, the question is whether Kuraly made a reasonable effort to avoid the contact in the first place. That Kuraly sought to minimize the contact, once it occurred, likely prevented the on-ice official from assessing a penalty, but should not have factored into whether or not the goal was allowed.

Kuraly is on a two-man rush with Acciari that begins in the left neutral zone. Kuraly gains possession and finds himself uncontested, in control of the puck. When he releases his shot from just inside the left face-off circle, he is above the level of the hash marks, and Anderson has his heels on his crease.

Following his shot, Kuraly glides on one foot until he’s briefly engaged by Ottawa defenseman Marc Methot (3) at the low hash mark. Kuraly has not altered his path toward the net, nor has he engaged his right skate.

Methot appears to make glancing contact with Kuraly, but does not substantially change his momentum or his path. When Anderson doesn’t handle the initial shot cleanly, the puck comes loose in front of his glove and left pad. At this point, Kuraly slightly alters his path and engages his right skate while he unsuccessfully attempts to make a play on the rebound with his stick.

Kuraly skates past the puck and into the crease, where he makes contact with Anderson’s left pad at the boot section. His feet also become entangled with Anderson’s stick as Anderson reaches to play the puck. 

When Kuraly falls over Anderson’s leg, it’s unclear whether he is actively leaping, or whether he has tripped over the entangled goal stick. His momentum forces Anderson’s stick and right arm up. Whether Anderson then exaggerates the momentum is certainly up for debate, but there doesn’t seem to be any debate that his stick position is altered by Kuraly’s feet.

The other question regards Rule 69.7.

Kuraly’s contact with Anderson occurs while Anderson is within his crease, attempting to make a play on a rebound. By Rule, an attacking player is allowed to make incidental contact with a goalie in his crease while attempting to play a rebound or loose puck, as Bob McKenzie correctly states. If this contact had occurred solely as the result of Kuraly attempting to play the puck, this goal may have been allowed.

However, on review of the sequence it appears that Kuraly’s contact does not, in fact, result from his attempt to make a play on the rebound, but is the result of the initial path and momentum that he establishes on his rush and continues well into his post-shot follow through. When he glides on his left foot for several feet after releasing his initial shot, he makes no attempt to mitigate his speed or his direction. He is unable to stop in time to make a clean play on the rebound, and his apparent leap to avoid additional contact with Anderson may have simply resulted from tripping over Anderson’s pad and stick.

It’s also important to remember that the interference rule doesn’t specify causation. In other words, it doesn’t specify that an offensive player’s contact with a goalie has to be the cause of a goal being scored for the goal to be disallowed. It simply states that a goal is disallowed if there is contact, incidental or non-incidental, within the crease, that prevents the goalie from playing his position.

Specifically as it pertains to this sequence, the rule doesn’t make any qualification regarding the method or positioning a goalie uses to make a save. For example, there was much discussion on this play about whether Anderson was already sitting back and preparing to “snow angel” after his initial save, which might have increased the likelihood of the puck coming loose for Acciari regardless of any effect of Kuraly’s contact. This doesn’t matter. If Anderson is already lying flat on his back when Kuraly comes into the crease, the rule still says that Kuraly can’t initiate anything other than incidental contact. In fact, had Anderson been in a more balanced, forward-leaning position at the time of Kuraly’s contact, he may well have sustained a significant impact to his head.

Sean Kuraly’s contact with Craig Anderson clearly invoked numerous arguments. While the play didn’t warrant a penalty, the ruling of the on-ice and replay officials upheld the basic principle that an attacking player cannot initiate contact with a goaltender in his crease. The replays show that Kuraly released his shot, and continued on a path with enough momentum to make contact with Anderson in his crease unavoidable. Kuraly’s actions as an attacking player failed to meet the minimum standards of Rules 69.1 and 69.3. Had the puck not entered the net, there wouldn’t have been any reason to stop play, but Acciari’s goal was appropriately disallowed.

These examples have featured obvious contact with the goalie in the crease. Contact in the crease, though, is often much more subtle and complex.

Second Round: Pittsburgh vs Washington, Game 2, April 29, Verizon Center

Already leading the Capitals 4-2, the Penguins score what appears to be their 5th goal when Ian Cole’s (28) shot from the point deflects off of Evgeni Malkin’s (71) toe and eludes Washington’s Phillipp Grubauer.

The goal was immediately waved off by the on-ice officials on the grounds of goalkeeper interference.

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan, however, challenged the call. After review, the on-ice ruling was reversed, and the goal was allowed to stand.

There are several factors to consider on this sequence. Malkin enters the crease on the backside of the play, angling for a position at the top of the crease.

Capitals’ defenseman Nate Schmidt (88), backs into Malkin, which causes him to deviate from his original path, and ensures contact with Grubauer.

Once the contact is made, Malkin rotates his body to establish his position, warding off Schmidt, and Grubauer retreats voluntarily halfway into the crease.

When Cole’s shot deflects off of Malkin’s toe, Malkin is straddling the crease, well clear of Grubauer, who has reset in his stance and dropped into his butterfly to defend against Cole’s initial shot.

Malkin’s position at the time of the deflection is clearly referenced in situation Table 16, which enhances interpretation of Rule 69.

The Table also addresses what may have been the on-ice official’s initial rationale for waving off the goal.

On review, though, this situation is different. To begin with, Malkin is redirected by Schmidt.

Grubauer’s retreat also works against him. If he had held his initial position once Malkin makes contact with him, and Malkin continued to fight his way through, then the original call may have been upheld. Instead, Grubauer retreats, then re-establishes his position halfway back into the crease.

Malkin also spins away, taking all but his right skate out of the crease. This constitutes a “reasonable effort” to disengage from the contact, and establishes a legal position on the crease line. The officials were correct to uphold Sullivan’s challenge, and allow this goal.

 

Washington’s previous series, against the Maple Leafs, showed a nearly opposite play.

First Round: Washington vs Toronto, Game 4, April 19, Air Canada Centre

Leading 4-2 in the third period, the Capitals thought they had tallied a decisive 5th goal when Nate Schmidt (88) appeared to beat Frederik Andersen on a floating wrist shot from the left point.

Immediately, however, the goal was disallowed by the on-ice officials, who determined that Niklas Backstrom (19) had interfered with Andersen. Capitals’ Coach Barry Trotz challenged the on-ice call of goaltender interference.

As TJ Oshie (77) carries the puck behind the net, Backstrom circles back toward the crease. Oshie moves the puck to John Carlson (74) at the right point, who sets up Schmidt on the left point. Andersen and Backstrom are entangled before Carlson receives Oshie’s pass, and Andersen finally frees himself just before Schmidt’s release. The puck sails past Andersen’s glove, over his left shoulder, ricochets high off of the inside of the left post and in.

The contact between Andersen and Backstrom… is complicated.

Backstrom’s initial approach on Andersen’s left shows him take a curling path toward the top left of the crease, at which point he’s engaged by Toronto’s Jake Gardiner (51). As Gardiner checks Backstrom’s path, Andersen pushes toward the left post, pushing his shoulder toward Backstrom. Gardiner’s stick actually contacts Andersen’s head, further causing the goalie’s left side to drift more toward Backstrom.

The action of the two Leafs wedges Backstrom between Gardiner and Andersen.

Backstrom, at this point, raises up his arms, turns toward the goal line, and moves to free himself from the contact.

He is unsuccessful, though, because it appears that Andersen has hooked Backstrom’s left leg between his goal stick and his glove.

Backstrom, in fact, works himself free of Gardiner, outside the crease, but Andersen still has both hands actively engaged in restraining the Capitals’ forward.

When Schmidt receives the cross-point pass, Andersen begins to disengage from Backstrom. Backstrom, at this point, partially turns back into the play, with his arms in the air, and only his left skate in the front left of the crease. Andersen rotates his head, stick, and shoulders toward Schmidt, but rather than move his glove to the inside of Backstrom to push off and create separation, Andersen drapes his left arm behind Backstrom with his glove on Backstrom’s left hip.

When Schmidt releases his shot, Andersen raises his glove away from Backstrom. Backstrom turns away from the shot, backing away from Andersen. The puck hits the inside of the left post, high and wide of Andersen’s moving glove.

Andersen is within the crease at the time of contact, so Rule 69.3 should apply.

The basic summary is that if a goal is scored while there is contact by an offensive player with the goaltender within the crease, whether it is incidental or not, the goal is disallowed. This holds true even if the contact is initiated by the goaltender, as long as it is in the course of establishing his own position.

In this case, Backstrom’s initial path appears to be taking him through the left crease line, without contact on Andersen. His path is impeded by Jake Gardiner, and Frederik Andersen appears to move excessively to his left in order to make sure that there is contact. Andersen is still within his crease, though, and the puck is on his left, so at this point Andersen is still within the letter of the Rule.

Once there is puck movement, however, it appears clear that Backstrom is making a reasonable effort to extricate himself from the crease, and from contact, but that he is being actively restrained by Andersen himself rather than battling with Gardiner for position.

The situation tables that help enhance the written rules do not necessarily allow for this situation. In most cases in which the goalie initiates contact with a player in (or near) the crease, the onus is still on the player to make a reasonable effort to avoid the entanglement. The rules do provide for a penalty to be called on a goalie who initiates forceful contact (Table 16 excerpts below), or who embellishes contact (Rule 64.1, also below).

On replay, it appears clear that although Andersen may have been within the rules when he initiates contact with Backstrom, he unnecessarily extends, and exacerbates, his entanglement with the Capitals’ forward.

Technically, this could have been considered hooking or holding on Andersen, or even embellishment, but that’s not a call an on-ice official would realistically be expected to make given the level of contact. The Maple Leafs, however, should not have benefited from Andersen’s play, particularly when the replay appears to show that Backstrom fulfills his obligation to make an immediate effort to disengage from Andersen and exit the crease. These factors should have led replay officials to uphold Barry Trotz’s challenge, and allow the Capitals’ goal.

When penalties are assessed by an on-ice official, the opportunity for a coach’s challenge or video review regarding goalie interference is negated. That makes things simpler for the officials, who do not have to agonize over a replay review. It’s a different story for players and coaches, let alone commentators and fans.

Especially once the playoffs start, even when a call is relatively straightforward, controversy is difficult to avoid.

First Round: Rangers vs Canadiens, Game 4, April 18, Madison Square Garden

Early in the Rangers’ 2-1 victory over Montreal, Rick Nash earned a 2-minute interference penalty for this net drive on Carey Price.

Nash (61) drives down the left wing, engaged with Jeff Petry (26), but with a clear positional advantage.

He pulls ahead of Petry, in control of the puck on his forehand, within the bottom of the face-off circle. 

From here, he continues on a path that has him heading wide of the net, until he makes a hard cut to his right.

Price blocks the puck with his stick paddle. Both of Nash’s skates are directed into the crease, and he continues forward along his path, directly into Price.

Unable to stop his momentum, Nash collides with Price’s right shoulder.

 

As Nash rises up and drags his left leg behind to avoid more significant impact with Price, Price rolls to his left and, for good measure, crashes to his back inside the net.

Kevin Hayes deposits the loose puck into the net, but the goal was disallowed. Nash was assessed a 2-minute penalty for goaltender interference.

There was plenty of discussion that Price should have been assessed a penalty for embellishment, which is included in the interference rules, but the on-ice officials deemed it unnecessary. Besides, embellishment is an ugly word. He simply makes sure that the referee is fully aware that Nash has made contact with him while carrying momentum into the crease, and that he is unable to play his position as a result. Better to say that he improves the optics for the on-ice officials.

Realistically, Price shouldn’t have to do that at all. This is a textbook example of goalkeeper interference.

Nash’s hard cut to his right establishes a path directly through the crease, with enough momentum to cause him to initiate contact with Price. At its core, Rule 69 exists so that a goalie doesn’t have to choose between protecting himself from an attacking player and stopping the puck. Even if Nash made no contact at all as a result of his leap to avoid Price, his path and momentum across the crease would impair Price’s ability to play his position, by forcing him to protect himself from Nash’s legs and skates.

Any argument in Nash’s favor, or that Price should have been equally penalized, encourages other players to attempt similarly dangerous plays, and puts goaltenders at risk of serious injury.

Having established that player safety is a primary intent of the goalkeeper interference rules, it’s important to acknowledge that the effect of a goalie interference penalty can have significant ramifications on the outcome of a game. Not only is the defending team awarded a power play, but often it results in a goal being taken away from the offensive team. If it’s a straightforward play early in a game, the controversy may not be substantial. When a call occurs late in a decisive playoff game, though, the can of worms may be substantially larger.

First Round: Pittsburgh vs. Columbus, Game 5, PPG Paints Arena, April 20

The Penguins eliminated the Columbus Blue Jackets in 5 games in their opening round series. In a key sequence in the decisive 5th game, the Blue Jackets trailed 3-2 late in the third period, and appeared to tie the game.

Columbus defenseman David Savard (58) receives a cross-ice pass from Brandon Saad, and releases a wrist shot from just above the right face-off circle that is timed to coincide with a net drive by Alexander Wennberg (10). The shot is blocked, and there is contact with Penguins’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury just at the edge of the crease. With Fleury sprawled on the ice, Oliver Bjorkstrand (28) backhands the loose puck into the net.

Immediately, the goal is waved off, preserving the Penguins 3-2 lead. In addition, Wennberg is assessed a 2-minute penalty for goaltender interference. John Tortorella is not happy about the call on the Columbus bench, but because a penalty was assessed on the play, it is not reviewable. Sidney Crosby scores the Penguins fourth goal on the ensuing power play, and any Blue Jackets’ hopes of a comeback are ended.

This is the rationale behind the penalty assessed to Wennberg.

An attacking player is not allowed to initiate non-incidental contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside the crease. The on-ice official would also have had the option to forego a penalty on Wennberg, but disallow the goal, on the basis of Rule 69.4.

Tortorella’s argument against the penalty, and the disallowed goal, was that Wennberg’s contact with Fleury was caused by a “pitchforking” by Pittsburgh forward Scott Wilson. If correct, then Wennberg should not have been assessed a penalty, and the case could be made that Bjorkstrand’s goal should have been allowed, based on this now-familiar section of Rule 69.1.

In this case, Wennberg establishes a path that seems as though it would have passed just in front of Fleury. He has both skates engaged as he crosses the slot. His eyes are on Savard, as he is preparing to possibly tip Savard’s shot as he passes in front of Fleury.

Wilson initiates contact with Wennberg, forcefully placing his stick across Wennberg’s chest and under his arms, and lowers his left shoulder into a leveraged position under Wennberg’s right arm. The force of the contact raises Wennberg’s right skate off of the ice and forces his crossing line to move closer to Fleury’s crease. Wennberg, in fact, changes the angle of his left skate in attempt to stop his momentum, but is unsuccessful. It also appears that he is attempting to rotate his body away from Fleury, though this is certainly not a dramatic effort.

Fleury appears to brace for the impact, using his blocker and right arm to deflect some of the force, but Wennberg’s body impacts the right side of Fleury’s head. Wilson is still actively engaged with Wennberg when he collides with Fleury.

Fleury rotates violently to his left, extending his arms as he falls prone on the ice, and is in no position to play Bjorkstand’s rebound shot.

Watching the replays, it seems clear that Wilson was a significant influence in causing Wennberg’s contact with Fleury, and that Wilson could even have been assessed a hooking penalty on the play (in which case the goal would have counted and likely considered to have occurred during a delayed penalty situation).

For his part, Wennberg appears to make a reasonable effort, under the circumstances, to avoid contact with Fleury. In fact, it appears that Fleury may have pushed slightly forward into Wennberg’s path, and used his blocker and right arm to mitigate the resulting impact rather than push off and attempt to play the loose puck after Savard’s shot is blocked. It’s also fair to assume that Fleury’s reaction to the contact by Wennberg, resulting in his inability to contest Bjorkstrand’s shot, significantly influenced the officials’ judgement to assess a penalty on the play. That’s not to say that Fleury embellished on the play, because there was significant contact by Wennberg, but it appears that he accepts the contact and tries to protect himself rather than attempt to fully avoid the contact and make a play on the puck.

This is a vicious cycle. If on-ice officials aren’t able to fully trust what they see, they will be more inclined to let replay reviews and coach’s challenges sort out the issues of goaltender interference without assessing the penalties that eliminate these options. For example, on the play we reviewed in our original post, Corey Crawford had little reaction to significant contact by Victor Arvidsson, interference wasn’t called, and Filip Forsberg’s goal was allowed to stand.

As a result, on plays like these, Price and Fleury feel the need to make sure officials are as aware as possible of any contact, in the hope that an interference penalty will be assessed rather than leave the decision to a replay system that seems inconsistent.

As, for example, Cam Talbot found out in Edmonton.

Second Round, Anaheim vs Edmonton, Game 4, May 2, Rogers Centre

Edmonton dominated the first period, building a 2-0 lead. Early in the second period, Ryan Getzalf (15) scores Anaheim’s vital first goal as Corey Perry (10) creates traffic in front of Cam Talbot.

Immediately, Edmonton coach Todd McLellan challenged the on-ice ruling. After lengthy review, the goal was allowed to stand, with the official explanation that there was no goaltender interference.

On review, it’s difficult to come to the same conclusion as the replay officials.

As Getzlaf curls in from the boards, Perry makes his way toward the net along the ice just above the goal line. Edmonton defenseman Adam Larsson (6) is in his path.

Perry initiates contact with Larsson’s back. Larsson braces against him, but doesn’t alter his position.

Perry pivots as he moves behind Larsson, widening his skate base and backing toward Talbot.

Perry’s right skate makes contact with Talbot’s right skate just outside the right crease line.

Perry pivots to his left and continues across the front of the crease. As he does, the back of his right leg and hip impact Talbot’s right arm and blocker, pushing them down and in as the puck passes to Talbot’s right.

There’s no question that Perry makes contact with Talbot, and that the contact affects Talbot’s ability to defend against Getzlaf’s shot. By the overall guidelines of Rule 69.1, the goal should have been disallowed based on the positioning of Talbot’s arm and blocker within the crease at the time of contact. Instead, Rule 69.4, which allows for incidental contact outside the crease, appears to have been a significant factor in the replay ruling based on the initial contact between the two players’ skates, which occurred outside the crease:

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The real question, though, as it was with Arvidsson and later with Kuraly, is whether Perry’s contact with Talbot can be assessed as incidental, or dismissed because of his contact with Larsson. On both counts, it’s difficult to agree with the replay interpretation.

Perry clearly recognizes Larsson’s position between himself and Talbot. He then chooses a path behind Larsson, one that puts him on a line closer to the crease. Larsson doesn’t check Perry into his final path. Instead, Perry slightly pushes himself off of the defenseman’s back and mohawks to his left.

In effect, Perry bounces himself backwards toward Talbot. Once he makes contact with Talbot’s skate, he then pivots across the front of Talbot’s body, making the further impact on his arm and blocker. Based on these actions, Perry’s ultimate contact with Talbot should have been regarded as the result of a series of deliberate maneuvers. Perry does not appear to make a reasonable effort to avoid contact with the goaltender, and the result of his contact is that Talbot is prevented from playing his position. Based on these replays, Getzlaf’s goal should have been disallowed on the basis of goalkeeper interference by Corey Perry.

The denial of this coach’s challenge had substantial influence on the subsequent course of the game. Getzlaf’s goal was allowed to stand, cutting the Oilers’ lead to 2-1. By rule, Edmonton lost its timeout, as well as the ability to challenge any further on-ice rulings. This was soon of significance, as a challenge and replay review may well have determined that Corey Perry was offside on the zone entry that led to Rickard Rakell’s tying goal for the Ducks just minutes later. Anaheim would ultimately win in overtime, 4-3.

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Controversial rulings, especially when they occur during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, don’t benefit anyone. The NHL wants a fairly officiated, entertaining product, with talented players scoring exciting goals. Television announcers and reporters want understandable explanations. Coaches want clarity. Goalies want to be protected so they can do their job.

At the moment, the questions regarding goaltender interference have led to a great deal of well-deserved frustration. Replay reviews, unfortunately, have yet to deliver on the promise of more definitive application of the rules regarding contact in and around the crease. Until there is more consistent interpretation of Rule 69 and its variations, goalies will continue to be at risk for injury, and controversial rulings will continue to have unwanted effects on the outcome of playoff games.

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