Just about every hockey fan can look back on this past season and think of that one game where the referees seemingly robbed their team of either one or two points.
While these games may be a bit of a nuisance in the regular season, when put into a playoff context the results of one bad call can be devastating. One loss can completely change the scope of an entire series, and even a team that is down 3-0 in a series can use the momentum of that one win to come back and win the series.
The officiating in the post-lockout NHL has struggled with consistency at times, but the tighter standards on holding, hooking and interference has created more offense and more power plays, bringing the average scores of games up. Regular season games have become more exciting and now that officiating has become more consistent, it can be argued that the quality of the NHL game is better than ever.
However, since the NHL's return, it's been very clear that the standards of officiating change sharply at the start of the post-season to standards similar to that of the "old NHL." Officials begin calling fewer and fewer penalties, allowing obstruction and stick fouls that would be cause for a minor penalty during the regular season to go unacknowledged.
The problem in this lies with the players: the definition of what a constitutes a hooking penalty or a holding infraction completely changes and this no doubt causes confusion and frustration when what used to be a penalty is not called.
From an official's perspective, this change is understandable. By loosening up the standards and keeping their whistles in their pockets more often, they can more safely remove themselves from the drama of the playoffs by eliminating the calling of a marginal penalty, or a penalty that really could have been let go even by regular season standards.
There's no doubt these penalties are frustrating in a regular season matchup, but consider this: a power play goal could completely change the momentum of this game, and then the entire series, costing a team, an entire city and an entire group of fans the chance at a Stanley Cup.
To avoid this controversy, officials like to keep out of the play and let the boys on the ice decide who wins each game, rather than their decisions.
Of course obvious penalties still have to be called or else the entire game loses its integrity, but then again the officials do seem to let everything go that isn't a blatant black-and-white violation of the rules.
I for one am a fan of this philosophy. It is this tendency to "let them play" that has given playoffs the aura and the reputation they have developed, and given the Stanley Cup the moniker of "The Most Prestigious Award in All of Sports."
By the time the playoffs are finished, the champion has overcome injuries, bumps, bruises, and marathon multi-overtime games. It's an all-out war on ice for this trophy and this is what makes the playoffs into the exciting times that hockey fans everywhere know and love.
Of course on the other side of this coin is the idea that this change in officiating can affect teams that are particularly good with their special teams, and particularly their power play.
The Vancouver Canucks will likely not like this change in officiating standards, as they'll likely enter the playoffs as the best team in the NHL on the power play. Other teams like Anaheim and Detroit will also probably be hurt in the same way as they depend on their highly-potent extra-man units to provide a steady source of offense. Without this offense, they may have a harder time trying to adapt to relying on 5-on-5 scoring.
Teams like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh who have excellent penalty kill units will often be slightly more indifferent toward the officiating changes, as a good penalty kill is like good life insurance—it's a great thing to have but really you pray you never have to use it.
So is it fair that officials change their standards for the postseason? I say it is but with a few restrictions.
For one, the change needs to be consistent all across the board, which is easier said than done. There will still be differences between each official and their opinion on what constitutes a penalty but as long as the calls are consistent game-by-game and team-by-team (if it's not a penalty for one team it can't be a penalty for another), then I say let the boys play.
Also, the loosening of the standards does allow the referees to remove themselves from the drama of the playoffs to a degree, and this is something fans around the league can appreciate, because nothing would be more of a downer on a brilliant playoffs than it being remembered for its terrible officiating.