As puerile as it may be for sports fans to blame their team’s shortcomings on erroneous (or allegedly erroneous) officiating, they are bound to take the floor when it’s the deciding game of a championship.
The last deciding goal in the deciding game of a Cup final to meet any controversy was Brett Hull’s triple-overtime strike that delivered a title to the Dallas Stars. More than a year thereafter, he and the Stars continued to encounter manual and verbal messages of “No goal” from Buffalo Sabres fans who had watched Hull drive the dagger through their dream with his skate in the crease.
Hull’s clincher ended the 1999 championship series in six games. Had the on-ice ruling been overturned upon video review, only the hockey gods know if the Stars would have proceeded to take Game 6 anyway, or who would have prevailed in the event of a Game 7.
Of course, then-NHL Supervisor of Officials Bryan Lewis was swift to verify the legality of the goal. He appeared on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada amidst the Stars’ champagne shower and told host Ron MacLean that Hull had possession of the puck the entire time he was in the blue paint.
But try convincing that to Buffalo fans, even 13 years after the fact. Or maybe that’s enough time for them to look at the 2012 finals, shrug and tell the New Jersey fan base to join them in the tough-luck club.
Today, Devils fans are essentially making a case against each of the first four goals in the Kings’ 6-1 romp Monday night en route to the 2012 title.
The first three were all a byproduct of a five-minute major penalty to New Jersey fourth-liner Steve Bernier, the second unanswered call on a Devil. But 13 seconds before Bernier pinned Los Angeles defenseman Rob Scuderi from behind and into the glass, Kings forward Jarret Stoll hit the back of Stephen Gionta in front of the open-air, rinkside reporter’s perch between the benches.
Had he been caught, there ought to have been a two-minute minor against Stoll once the Kings played the loose puck in their own end. The resultant stoppage of play would have stopped Bernier from his perilous charge.
In turn, perhaps the Devils would have had a more favorable chance to tally that vital first goal of the game.
There is, in that sense, at least one fundamental difference between the Dallas-Buffalo and L.A.-New Jersey controversy. Once Hull’s goal was ruled legitimate, it instantaneously terminated the game, the series and the season.
Conversely, even when Bernier was penalized and Stoll was not, the Devils still had a chance to keep themselves in the competition. They arguably blew that chance by venting too much energy on the officials and putting too little into their penalty kill.
Even after they fell into the 3-0 pothole at intermission, the Devils still could have whittled their way back, as countless teams have done surprisingly often when confronting a three-goal deficit. But a fourth L.A. goal at the 90-second mark of the middle frame complicated the comeback effort, and New Jersey fans are inclined to point to a freak incident moments prior.
As the Kings rushed the puck onto New Jersey property, linesman Pierre Racicot skated backwards whilst monitoring the developing play. Upon reaching the far circle-top, he was inadvertently floored by backchecking blueliner Anton Volchenkov.
In another 12 seconds, Jeff Carter snapped home his second goal of the night for a 4-0 advantage.
If not for the collision, Volchenkov might have had a chance to catch up to puck-carrier Dustin Brown, who instead proceeded to set up Carter’s strike.
But not unlike the execution of Hull’s goal, the Racicot-Volchenkov incident leaves the NHL’s hands tied.
Lewis explained why the rulebook allowed Hull’s goal at the time, and that same rulebook today holds nothing against goals that result from weird bounces.
If Devils fans are going to be peeved about Racicot failing to vacate Volchenkov’s skating path, then San Jose Sharks fans might as well call for a restructuring of the glass stanchions or a reformation of the rulebook. You will recall how the Sharks brooked the knockout punch from the Vancouver Canucks in last year’s conference final.
But try explaining this to New Jersey fans who cannot be faulted too much for at least pondering what might have been if their team got a more favorable break.
Devils and Sabres supporters can now find common ground in that area. Whether they accept their misfortunes as relatable is up to them.