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Will inconsistent goalie interference rulings decide Stanley Cup?

InGoal Magazine’s final deep dive on goalie interference examines the ruling that hurt the Edmonton Oilers, and looks at ways to address the problem …

The Nashville Predators and Pekka Rinne are on to the Stanley Cup Final after dropping the Anaheim Ducks in 6 games. Luckily, the Western Conference Final didn’t come down to something like this.

 

Edmonton fans – and players for that matter – are still not happy about Rickard Rakell’s goal with 15 seconds remaining in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinal. 

The goal, which was upheld after a brief end-game league-mandated review, completed the Anaheim Ducks’ remarkable Game 5 comeback on Friday May 5 (Saturday May 6 in the Eastern time zone), tying the Oilers at 3-3 after trailing 3-0 with less than 4 minutes left to play. The Ducks would win early in the second overtime when Ryan Getzlaf found Corey Perry alone in front of Cam Talbot, and Perry was able to outwait Talbot to slide a forehand past his outstretched left pad. Although Edmonton rebounded to a blowout 7-1 win in Game 6, the Ducks would ultimately win the series, taking Game 7 2-1 in Anaheim.

This goal is nearly a perfect storm. Rakell scores during a net-mouth scramble in the waning seconds of a critical game, at home, after a furious 3rd period comeback. Other than a deciding goal in a game 7 (a “Hull”), there isn’t a more difficult circumstance to consider overturning a call on the ice. However, a review of the entire sequence in relation to the rules as written would suggest that this should have been considered goalkeeper interference.

The decision to uphold Rakell’s goal was described by commentators as one that could have “gone either way,” but that’s not really a true statement regarding any replay review. On the ice, there’s judgment and perception in real time. On instant replay, there’s only a record of what happened.

So, what exactly does happen?

Cam Fowler (4) sends a wrist shot through a maze of bodies in front of the Edmonton net. Corey Perry (10) and Ryan Kesler (17) are planted in front of the crease, in legal position, behind Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25). It appears that the puck gets through to Talbot and rebounds through Perry’s skates, where Kesler is able to redirect it toward the net.

Talbot makes another save with his left pad.

At this point, Rule 69.7 is in effect.

Kesler and Perry both lunge for the puck, while Nurse makes body contact with both of them. Perry crashes into Talbot’s left pad, and Kesler across his right pad.

After the initial contact is established, Kesler maintains both hands on his stick, and Talbot’s right thigh rise ends up positioned between Kesler’s hands. Kesler’s left hand is inside Talbot’s thigh rise, and his stick is against the thigh edge of the goalie’s pad.

As Talbot pulls his right leg toward him, Kesler maintains contact on the inside of Talbot’s pad with his left hand, and maintains a firm grip on his stick. The shaft of his stick ultimately becomes wedged under Talbot’s pad.

At one particular point, it would seem that Kesler, should he have intended to free his left hand, would have had the ability to release Talbot’s pad but still maintain control over his own stick. In fact, if he was making any effort at all to disengage himself, his hand should have come free.

Instead, he maintains his hand position as Talbot fights to get his pad closer to his body. In fact, he wedges his stick further under Talbot’s thigh rise.

Seen in video, it appears that Kesler hooks on to Talbot’s pad, and is willing to take a ride. It’s also important to note that while Kesler drags along with Talbot, Nurse is no longer exerting significant physical pressure against Kesler, but has shifted his attention to Perry.

 

After the play shifts to Talbot’s left, the puck comes free.

Simultaneously, Edmonton’s Patrick Maroon (19) crashes into the play, and his skates push Kesler’s stick blade toward the puck.

Kesler now willingly releases his right hand from his stick, raises his left hand off the ice, and reaches his stick toward the puck, also rotating his left hand. His left leg extends behind him as he makes this reach. Importantly, as he raises his hand and extends his stick, he drops his left elbow inside Talbot’s thigh rise and pulls his elbow closer to his own body, either to maintain contact with Talbot’s pad, or to use Talbot’s equipment to maintain his own position and balance.

Kesler is clearly looking at the puck during this sequence. In fact, the motion of Kesler’s elbow exerts a pulling force on the pad while he is reaching for the puck, which creates an additional obstacle for Talbot to gain control over his goal stick.

In other words, despite the influence of Maroon’s contact with his stick, it would appear that Kesler’s intent is to try to make a play on the puck while actively maintaining his contact with Talbot’s pad until Rakell (67) is able to shoot the puck.

As Rakell gains possession of the puck, well out of Kesler’s reach, Kesler replaces his free left hand down on the ice, again inside Talbot’s pad. 

When Kesler replaces his hand on the ice, Talbot’s blocker hand is next to his head. Kesler actually leans into Talbot’s blocker at this point, without any pressure from Nurse, pushing the goalie’s hand backwards as he watches his Ducks’ teammate control the loose puck. Kesler then gathers himself to fight against Nurse, who is trying to get his stick across on the ice to try to block Rakell’s shot.

 

Once Kesler sees Rakell shoot, he moves his stick into the shot path and lifts his left hand to lower his stick blade, attempting to create a ramped  deflection. In the process, he blocks Talbot from moving his pad to close his 5-hole, but his position also partly restrains Talbot’s stick with his left shoulder and upper arm. It appears that the puck deflects off of Maroon’s stick, and through Talbot’s legs, just as his stick is being displaced by Kesler’s body as he fights against Nurse.

Is this awfully complicated? Yes! Are Kesler’s actions subtle? Absolutely! That, however, is the whole point of having a league mandated replay review in the closing seconds of a game.

Often, we hear the phrase “conclusive evidence” in regard to the replay officials’ standard for overturning a call on the ice, but that isn’t actually wording that is used in the rule book. Here, “not conclusive” isn’t used as an interpretive standard, it’s used to allow for the fact that, on occasion, available video might not answer the specific question of what happened.

Was this flagrant goalie interference? No. However, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t interference. Evaluation of the entirety of the sequence would suggest that, in fact, Ryan Kesler did continuously and intentionally interfere with Cam Talbot after being pushed into the crease by Darnell Nurse, and that Rickard Rakell’s goal should not have been allowed.

The interpretive issue with replay review really isn’t that it takes too long to look at, or that it parses high speed action into individual frames and creates a false impression of the play compared to “game speed.” The real problem is that with so much visual information, it’s almost always possible to find some evidence, even if it’s only a portion of the story, that supports any preconceived idea that the reviewer brings into the process.

For example, it’s entirely reasonable to say that Kesler was initially pushed into Talbot by Nurse.

This, in fact, seems to have been the overriding rationale in the ultimate decision to allow the goal to stand, and likely the reason for the very brief video review.

However, the simple fact that Kesler was pushed into the contact with Talbot while playing a rebound doesn’t absolve him of any further responsibility.

Kesler is obligated under the rules to make a reasonable effort to avoid contact. He is also required to allow the goaltender to play his position once the contact is initiated, regardless of who initiates the contact.

It would not be unreasonable to consider the applicable situation tables for contesting a loose puck here as well.

Taking the entirety of Rule 69 and its variants into account, the real questions that need to be asked are:

  1. Did Kesler make a reasonable effort to avoid the initial contact with Talbot?
  2. Was Kesler’s contact with Talbot throughout the play incidental?
  3. Did Kesler make a reasonable effort to avoid continued contact with Talbot once the initial contact was established?

In order to have properly enforced the rule, if the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then the goal should have been disallowed. Specifically:

More generally:

The argument could easily be made here that although his initial contact with the Edmonton goaltender was caused by the defender, Kesler does not make any reasonable effort to disentangle from Talbot. From that perspective, then, any continued contact with Talbot through the remainder of the sequence should not be considered the result of Nurse’s initial push, nor should it be considered incidental. This alone represents grounds to disallow Rakell’s goal.

Later in the sequence, it appears that Kesler’s intent is to maintain contact with Talbot’s equipment while he tries to make an offensive play with his stick. The implication of the rationale and the situation table explanations is that the attacking player’s intent cannot be to deliberately impede the goaltender’s ability to play his position. Even acknowledging that Kesler has the right to play a loose puck, it’s hard to explain Kesler’s actions without including an intent to interfere with Talbot’s ability to play his position within the crease.

So why was this call so quickly and summarily dismissed on the basis of only the initial evaluation of Nurse’s contact, apparently without detailed evaluation of the subsequent development of the play?

“… any doubt whatsoever as to whether the call on the ice was correct…”

This is the most salient phrase, and it speaks directly to the heart of the problem that the NHL has with its goaltender interference rules. The problem isn’t the rules themselves, the problem is that this phrase allows for vast, individual leeway in the application of the rules as they are written. The result is twofold. First, there is general inconsistency in the enforcement of the rules, as we’ve previously discussed. Second there is a biased approach to the review process that allows for the chaos and dissatisfaction that colored this series between the Ducks and the Oilers.

At the end of game 5, with the final few minutes playing out the way they did and knowing the way infractions are called in the postseason, it’s not unreasonable for an offensive player to assume that only the most flagrant on-ice violation could result in a disallowed goal by an on-ice official. In other words, the overwhelming likelihood would be that the call on the ice, on this play, would be to allow almost any goal that is scored. If the officials subsequently review the play with the intent that the call on the ice should be upheld, then the end result is that it is unlikely that Rule 69 will be strictly enforced.

This is not lost on professional hockey players like Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry. If a goal is more than likely to be allowed at the end of the game, and a review is likely to uphold the call on the ice, then players know that they will likely get away with any kind of marginal activity that affects the goaltender. This is, in fact, exactly how Kesler approaches this sequence. Once the puck is loose and he feels any contact from Darnell Nurse, he makes absolutely no effort to avoid or minimize contact with Cam Talbot. In fact, his actions suggest that he intentionally prolonged the entanglement for as long as possible, until he broke himself free to celebrate with his teammates after the puck had entered the net.

 

The final question to answer about goalie interference and replay reviews is what to do about the issues that have faced the league with the advent of coach’s challenges and automatic league reviews.

The simplest solution is to begin next season with a comprehensive education program. Provide the teams with mandatory review sessions of the goalie interference rules and situation tables, with video examples and, where possible, on-ice demonstrations. Let the players, coaches, and general managers know that the interference rules, as written and explained to them, are going to be strictly enforced by on-ice and review officials. Reinforce that the officials themselves are to call the rules as written, regardless of game situations, and that they are to err on the side of calling penalties on both forwards and goalies for Rule 69 infractions. Players are smart. They will adjust, especially after a few 2-minute power plays are awarded and goals are taken away in the first few weeks of the season.

Finally, the league needs to streamline the video review process, so that mandatory league reviews and coaches’ challenges are performed with the same strict adherence to the rules as written. The league situation rooms should have a specific team of officials who are responsible for evaluating goaltender interference video sequences, who use a consistent approach to their interpretations and provide specific explanations as to how their decisions are reached, so that there is full transparency. Reviewing these videos to see exactly what happens, and why, is a painstaking process. It is unfair to expect an on-ice official to review these cases on a tablet leaning into the scorer’s door, particularly if the purpose is to either defend or overturn his own call on the ice. A dedicated team of replay officials will be able to review these plays more accurately, and efficiently, but still allow for the on-ice officials’ impression of the play to be factored in.

Importantly, it should be stated by the league that this process is specific to these extremely complex and pivotal plays, and in no way is it meant to undermine the authority of the on-ice officials nor provide for any official means to question any penalty that is called on the ice. With that in mind, the replay review team would also be responsible for providing non-punitive, non-disciplinary feedback to the on-ice officiating crews regarding any goaltender interference or goaltender penalties that were assessed, and these reports would be privately provided on a weekly basis to all of the general managers.

 

The NHL goalkeeper interference rules are complex, but not unclear. Their purpose is to create a fair balance between scoring, exciting goaltending, and player safety. Their complexity allows for on-ice judgment, game flow, and contact between players battling for position in front of the crease. This isn’t a plea for untouchable goalies outside the blue, or inviolable creases. There is no need to change the rules. They just need to be enforced as they are written.

 

 

 

 

 

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