Overtime playoff hockey may be one of, if not the most dramatic sequences in all of sports. The flow can change in an instance and a broken play can result in the puck finding the back of the net off a couple lucky deflections, sending one elated team further on into the postseason and one heartbroken team into the summer.
We saw an example of this last night, when Vancouver's Alex Burrows batted down a clearing attempt by Blackhawks defenseman Chris Campoli and turned it into a Game 7 game winner for the Canucks.
The drama impacts everyone, including even the referees. They've been noticeably tight-lipped when it comes to calling penalties in overtime this postseason.
In the 13 games that have gone past regulation this season, there have only been five penalties called in the overtime sessions. They've all been minor penalties (two tripping, one delay of game, one too-many-men, and one holding), resulting in just ten minutes of penalty time in 159 minutes and 18 seconds of overtime that's been played in this year's postseason.
That stretches out to roughly just over three penalty minutes for a full 60-minute game. The least penalized team in the league during the regular season, the Florida Panthers, averaged 8.7 penalty minutes a game on their own.
Clearly, the referees don't blow the whistle as much in sudden death. But why?
The first reason is clear: the referees don't want to cost a team their season. If you look at the reasoning for the five penalties, the delay of game off a puck being cleared over the glass by the defensive team has to be called, as does the too-many-men penalty. You could make an argument that the tripping penalties need to be called if they're blatant. All but the holding call on Alex Burrows last night (which was awful) are calls the referees just have to make.
And of course, there is extra pressure on the players to not take a penalty. Imagine getting a two-minute minor for roughing, and then watching the opposing team score the series-deciding goal while you're in the penalty box. You won't be invited to the team's summer family barbecue, that's for sure.
That said, there have been plenty of games where the referees may have not even had a chance to call a penalty. Out of the 13 games that went to overtime, seven of them didn't even reach the six-minute mark. Each of the three games that went to double overtime saw at least one minor penalty called.
Obviously, the referees give the players a little more leeway than usual during overtime. They realize what's on the line for each team, and don't want to wipe seven months of hard work away due to a shoddy penalty call. The players realize it too, and aren't about to take a stupid minor.
So what's the verdict? At the end of the day, it's pretty clear that less penalties are called in post-regulation playing time, both due to the players playing smarter and the referees letting stuff go due to the importance of the games. The players help the referees out, though, by ending the games early on in sudden death time more often than not.
So, yeah, the referees swallow their whistles in overtime. But we kinda like it better that way.