Over the course of an 82-game season there are going to be nights when the men in stripes don’t do right by you. You accept that — you have to. It’s the fastest game in the world, with collisions and entangled bodies and blocked views occurring on virtually every shift, and as such much mischief will be missed.
Moreover, the men who officiate our sport often went unloved as children, and skate their labor with the scars of that.
The most egregious and insufferable shortcoming with hockey’s officiating occurs when a zebra makes a judgment call, through a maze of bodies, that undoes late-game heroism. It’s a moment when an official, rather than world-class athlete(s), determines a game. We fans pay good money to see special athletes thrill us, occasionally surmounting enormous obstacle and odds to triumph. Their doing so affords us sports’ most indelible images.
Thursday night at American Airlines Arena in Dallas, in a game of conspicuous involvement — as well as lack thereof — by the officials, the Capitals’ 2-1 loss to the Stars brought about an infuriating ending, and that just seemed appropriate given the work of the officials pretty much all night long.
It was a night when Capitals’ players again had their sticks chopped in half with impunity. Meanwhile, in the middle of the Capitals’ more than commendable road effort after triumphing in St. Louis the night, referees Thursday night went whistle-happy against the visitors in a momentum-altering six minutes of the second period. Three Capitals went off with minors, forcing a fatigue-defying club onto a perpetual penalty kill. Nothing ostensibly wrong with calling a tight game (though it’s dull); it just has to be called so on both halves of the ice.
There is no denying that Alexander Ovechkin is mired in one of the worst slumps of his career — from the vantage of scoring goals. But last night he aptly demonstrated that even without lighting the lamp he can have a big and positive impact as leader for his team. He doled out big hits; he continued to effectively distribute the puck to his teammates; most impressively, when Marcus Johansson was rudely greeted in open ice (cleanly, but rudely), the captain raced in to confront the assailant and let him know all was not well. In short, Ovi did a lot of dirty work Thursday night, precisely the sort of dirty work a team needs to win a game.
None of it was dirtier than in the game’s waning seconds, with Michal Neuvirth on the Capitals’ bench and the Caps pressing for a tying score. Ovi, on another evening when perhaps he was squeezing his stick too tightly, and firing too many shots high or wide of the opposition cage, decided to do what would best help his club in this trying time: making menace in front of Andrew Raycroft, to see if he could help his team avoid defeat with his strength and work ethic rather than his AWOL scoring touch. Good for him.
That he entered Raycroft’s crease with 8 or 9 seconds to play is beyond dispute, but so, too, did Dallas defenders Stephane Robidas and Karlis Skrastins. But it was Skrastins, not Ovechkin, who barreled into Raycroft, impairing the goaltender. In a night-defining flash, the Caps in a mad scramble got the puck past Raycroft, an Atlanta-sized home crowd was hush-struck, Ovi turned to embrace his determined teammates in elation, and terrorist referee Dan O’Rourke instantly and emphatically began motioning with his arms that no late-game heroics would be allowed on this night. All Caps’ fans with a wide-angle-eye approach to the moment were denied a scintilla of celebration as O’Rourke’s judicial activism intervened immediately behind Raycroft’s cage.
The Capitals’ head coach threw a tantrum, and earned an abuse of officials penalty soon thereafter. Good for him.
“What do you want me to say that I can’t get fined for?,” he asked red-faced in the postgame. “If you take a look at the friggin call . . . Ovi doesn’t touch the guy. It cost us two points.
“I thought we outplayed them pretty well.”
If you’re gonna wipe out a game-tying goal in the waning seconds, if you’re gonna be the deciding factor in an immensely rugged and spiritedly competed hockey game, hadn’t there ought to be something approaching metaphysical certitude that in the defining moment you can’t get possibly get it wrong? Gabby alluded to precisely this point: “You better be sure” he cracked in appropriate disgust. We fans, after all, are paying good money to watch these great athletes make great and heroic plays, and that’s precisely what the Capitals did in Thursday night’s final minute.
Replays of Thursday night’s disallowed late heroics by the Caps seemed to indicate that O’Rourke may well have gotten it wrong. And if so that’s egregiously worse than missing a slash behind the play. If wrong the integrity of the evening has been compromised.
In NHL scrutiny of officiating, of course, such a play is not objectively reviewable in Toronto.
Ovechkin for his part seemed just as incensed by the call out on the ice as his coach. He seemed in his animation far more perturbed than your typical athlete on the short end of a tough call. In the visitor’s locker room he reviewed the replay and kept his ire clipped and curt.
“I just saw the replay. No comment about it. It’s unbelievable.”
Rebecca over at Japers’ Rink offers important context for this bitter ending. “It’s a call that, along with goaltender interference calls (and non-calls) has seemed to haunt this team in recent years.”