Wednesday, 30 April 2014

NHL philosophy and lax refereeing favours Bruins over Canadiens

Now that we have a schedule for the games to be held for the Canadiens vs. the Bruins series, I can't stall on this any longer, and with a heavy heart have to say that I don't hold out much hope for our team against the NHL's preferred team.  I think the latter win it convincingly.  If we play well, we may stretch the series to six games.

I'm not ignoring that the Canadiens historically have played the Bruins tough, even when the latter were favoured, or that the Canadiens won three out of four games against them this season.  I'm just discounting it a little bit.  The Bruins can get rattled or lose focus when they see red, or when they see bleu-blanc-rouge, but I have to believe that this veteran team will keep their eye on the ball in this series.

While I enjoyed the series against Tampa Bay that the Canadiens swept, I think that the Canadiens weren't dominant so much as the Lightning were undone by poor goaltending.  Anders Lindback had a .877 save percentage, and Kristers Gudlevskis, in his limited appearances, couldn't overcome that with a .900 himself.  And it wasn't a case of them being beat by shots or plays they had no chance against, but rather that they appeared weak on many goals.  Some shots that went in on them should have been saves, plain and simple, and probably would have been had Ben Bishop been in nets instead.

The Canadiens did what they had to do in the previous series, didn't trail for more than a few minutes, didn't lose a game, but that was against a diminished opponent.  And it wasn't a flawless series for the Habs.  The top line of Pacioretty-Desharnais-Vanek didn't produce as much as we'd have liked.  The powerplay underwhelmed, with a success rate of 15%.  The penalty kill was uncharacteristically poor, finishing up at 71%.

So now the Canadiens will go up against the Presidents' Trophy as a decided underdog.  And they have a chance, it's certainly not that I have no faith in my team, but I definitely have no faith at all in the NHL, in its approach to the game and more specifically how it administers the playoffs.  I have no faith that the referees will do the job they are entrusted to do, the job that they should do, and this will be all to the advantage of Boston.

Talking heads often say that the refs are 'letting stuff go', not injecting themselves in the game, and conclude that this evens out at the end of the game, or certainly at the end of the series.  Both teams get away with acts or plays that should have been penalized, both team miss out on powerplay opportunities roughly equally, no one benefits, the refrain goes.

Except that this breaks down when the Bruins play the Canadiens.  The tolerance of hooking and obstruction isn't an equal boon to both teams, but will instead tilt the balance towards the Bruins in helping them contain the Canadiens' skating and speed.  Also, the sudden-onset blindness that strikes referees when confronted with a scrum in front of a goalie will also play in the Bruins' favour, where they'll try to run Carey Price and elbow and slash and crosscheck their way to goals.  The Bruins do this more, and do it as part of their game plan, as a strategy.

Don Cherry thunders that the refs should 'let them play'.  Well, Let Them Play=Let Them Cheat.  The Bruins will get away with more cheating.

Think of it this way.  The Bruins commit five times as many infractions as the Canadiens, will slash and rabbit punch and facewash five times as often as the Canadiens, or at least will start these instances five times as often and the Canadiens will have to defend themselves and respond in kind.

So when the refs only call, let's say 10% of the infractions committed by either team, the Bruins will get away with five times as many instances of cheating that the Canadiens will, and these instances will add up in terms of missed passes, flubbed shots, turnovers, missed clearances, etc.  Over the length of the series, this will be a great advantage for the Bruins.

Except it will be worse than that.  The Bruins won't even get five times as many penalties as the Canadiens will.  The referees are under pressure to 'even out' the penalties to both teams, so one isn't on the penalty kill an 'unfair' amount of time.  Which is nonsense really.

In the NFL, there is no such compulsion.  A undisciplined, poorly coached, poorly led team, say, for example the Oakland Raiders, is understood and expected by everyone to amass more penalties than your average team.  So as the game progresses and the Raiders jump offside, and are caught with twelve or fourteen men on the field, and get a player ejected for throwing punches in a post-whistle melée, and get called for roughing the passer, and their penalty yardage climbs, no one bats an eye.

The commentators will refer to the historic 'mystique' of the team, how toughness bordering on dirty play has always been part of their identity, and will mention how their total yardage lost on penalties in this particular game is a big factor in how they're losing by four touchdowns at this point.  No one will squawk that the opponent's penalty yardage is too low, and that it should be equalized as the game advances.  Everyone understands that the opponent is disciplined, well-coached, hasn't jumped offside repeatedly, hasn't taken a cheapshot spearing penalty on a downed opposition receiver, that's why their penalty yardage is correspondingly, logically lower.

The Raiders act tough and try to play tough, but often cross the line and draw proportionately more penalties, and often implode in a maelstrom of stupidity and misdirected aggression, and that ends up on the scoreboard, and that's a reasonable result that no one moans about.

Compare and contrast with the NHL, where announcers will during a game tell their viewers that one team needs to be extra careful, as they've benefited from a couple of powerplays, or worse cashed one in lately.  When the red-striped arm goes up and the whistle inevitably blows, they nod and explain that it was destined to happen, that a penalty had to be called to even things out.  Nature abhors an unequal penalty tally.

Last season if I recall correctly, a TSN Montreal personality appeared on a call-in show in Boston, where the hosts made the point that the Bruins were targeted by the refs, and that the Canadiens were divers, using as evidence the fact that the Bruins had incurred more penalty minutes and more minor penalties than anyone in the league, whereas the Habs had one of the league's lowest totals.  That was their proof.

In their eyes, the fact that the Habs had comparatively fewer penalties and drew more from the opposition was due to their diving and embellishing, not their speed causing problems for overmatched opponents.  In their world, every team should have an equal amount of penalties for and against, regardless of playing style or the presence or absence of Gregory Campbell on their roster.  This is what passes for logic when appraising the NHL.

So in our theoretical example above whereby the Bruins will slash and crosscheck and charge five times more than the Canadiens, and the refs let most of it go, it won't be a proportional show of indulgence.  Brad Marchand will eye-gouge P.K. and get a penalty, and later on Zdeno Chara will perform a tonsilectomy with his Warrior AK27 on Brian Gionta and also have to go feel shame for two minutes.  Johnny Boychuk will try to unscrew Brendan Gallagher's head from his neck, as retaliation for the crime of being near the crease and attempting to score, and the Bruins defender will lament his fate as he goes to the box as well, and will be incensed and really let the refs have it when he's let out early after a Tomas Plekanec powerplay goal.

As the period ends and Sean Thornton pastes Andrei Markov head first into the boards, the refs will waver, wary of the squawking Claude Julien has done regarding Montréal's propensity to dive or embellish.  They'll consider that the Bruins have already served three penalties, they're already down a goal, so they'll look the other way, and consider it a hockey play, certainly no worse than the Brent Seabrook hit.  Why inject themselves into the play?  Why not let the players decide the outcome of the game?

In the second, Alexei Emelin will slash at Jarome Iginla as he wheels around in the Canadiens' zone, the refs will let out a big sigh of relief into their whistle and get to work 'equalizing' the game.

And that's how the series will go.  The Bruins will play with 10 Bingo cards while we play with our one, and Daddy Campbell will spin the Bingo cage, and Mike Milbury and Don Cherry will call out the numbered balls as they see them.

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