Friday, 2 February 2018

There Is No Interference

We heard from reports that the idea of goaltender interference, which had become more a joke than a rule, was discussed at the NHL All-Star Game in working to keep the rule from preventing goals as it seemingly had been used more and more this season. We were told that the league would like to see less goals prevented and more goals awarded when it came to goaltender interference reviews, and that only the most egregious of interference should prevent a goal from being awarded. In last night's game between the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets, I'm pretty certain that we saw egregious interference when James Neal slashed Connor Hellebuyck, but the result was a goal was awarded. It's almost like slashing isn't a form of interference.

First, let's start with the play before we take a look at how this called was made. Here is the play from last night that shows Neal slash Hellebuyck while he has the puck partially covered.
As you can hear on the video above, the goal was a good goal based on there being no goaltender interference on the play. I find this hard to believe, but it seems that slashing is not interference when it comes to this goal, and the two referees simply missed the slashing call on Neal prior to Haula sweeping the puck into the net.

I guess the NHL definitions of what is interference versus what is slashing might be important when it comes figuring out whether this goal should have been called back.

Lt's start with Rule 69.1 in the NHL Rule Book wich deals exclusively with goaltender interference. That rule, in part, reads,
"Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper's ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact. The rule will be enforced exclusively in accordance with the on-ice judgement of the Referee(s), but may be subject to a Coach's Challenge (see Rule 78.7).

For purposes of this rule, 'contact,' whether incidental or otherwise, shall mean any contact that is made between or among a goalkeeper and attacking player(s), whether by means of a stick or any part of the body. The overriding rationale of this rule is that a goalkeeper should have the ability to move freely within his goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player. If an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by his actions, impairs the goalkeeper's ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.
In reading this, the second portion of the rule outlined above that reads "'contact,' whether incidental or otherwise, shall mean any contact that is made between or among a goalkeeper and attacking player(s), whether by means of a stick or any part of the body" would be what determines whether a goal is good or disallowed in this scenario. James Neal's stick, regardless of intent, made contact with Connor Hellebuyck while Hellebuyck was in his crease, thereby causing interference meaning the goal should have been disallowed by the way the very rule is written.

Maybe there's some sort of conflicting rule when it comes to slashing? Well, according to Rule 61.1 in the NHL Rule Book, "Slashing is the act of a player swinging his stick at an opponent, whether contact is made or not. Non-aggressive stick contact to the pant or front of the shin pads, should not be penalized as slashing. Any forceful or powerful chop with the stick on an opponent's body, the opponent's stick, or on or near the opponent's hands that, in the judgment of the Referee, is not an attempt to play the puck, shall be penalized as slashing."

As seen in this rule, regardless of whether the stick makes contact or not, the act of swinging a stick at an opponent that involves a "forceful or powerful chop with the stick to an opponent's body" would constitute the act of slashing, and since Neal's slash occurred prior to Haula sweeping the puck into the net, this would negate the goal had the referees made the call on Neal as Haula would have touched the puck, giving him control of the puck, after Neal's offence had occurred.

So how did the officials get this call apparently wrong?

First, they never called the slash on Neal, so the second portion of the argument above about the slashing penalty was never even considered. Neither official raised his arm with the intent on penalizing Neal, so that point above is moot. That leaves us with just the goaltender interference rule, and things get murky here because of one key point in that rule: "the on-ice judgement of the Referee(s)".

Because goaltender interference calls are the final judgment of the officials on the ice, they get the final say on what is and is not goaltender interference. They can speak with the War Room in Toronto and they can get other opinions, but the final ruling comes down to who is wearing the stripes that night on the ice, and the only question they can answer is whether there was sufficient interference with the goaltender to warrant a change in their on-ice ruling on a goal.

In this case, Ghislain Hebert and Kelly Sutherland made the determination that Neal's slash to mask of Hellebuyck did not impede his ability to stop the puck that David Perron had shot seconds earlier as the puck was already under Hellebuyck when Neal's slash occurred. Despite the rule clearly stating that "an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by his actions, impairs the goalkeeper's ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed," both Hebert and Sutherland made the determination that Neal's actions did not impair Hellebuyck from making a save. And since slashing isn't reviewable, a penalty cannot be assessed to Neal that would force the sequence of events to reverse the goal call as Neal's slash happened before Haula touched the puck chronologically.

Let's be honest here: no one likes to admit that they're wrong on national television. Hebert and Sutherland are just as human as you or I when it comes to making mistakes, and that's alright. They cannot and should not be faulted for making a mistake when it comes to the speed of this game and/or their positioning that may prevent them from seeing all angles of the same play. That's the entire purpose for the coach's challenge and the reviews of specific plays - it's to help the officials make the correct call.

What astounds me is that the rule on goaltender interference addresses this very situation where a player makes contact with a goaltender with his stick, and neither Hebert nor Sutherland seems to enforce that portion of the rule. It doesn't state when the interference has to occur, but simply that it occurs. In this very case, Neal's swinging stick makes contact with Hellebuyck while in his crease, and that would disallow the goal by rule as it is written.

In the end, Vegas defeated the Jets 3-2 in overtime off a David Perron goal, and the Jets rightfully were upset at the events of this game based on this non-call. I don't think that either or both of Hebert and Sutherland should be reprimanded for what seems to be a missed call, but the NHL needs to really sit down and make the goaltender rule iron-clad. Without a clear sense of how to enforce the rule, this will always be a judgment call for the officials on the ice, and that means each and every referee will have a different standard on what goaltender interference is.

Therein lies the problem with the rule right now as it appears there is no defined rule on what goaltender interference is on a nightly basis.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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