On Conspiracy Theories, Bad Officiating, And No Benefit Of The Doubt For Erik Karlsson


Let me preface this post by stating that I know how it looks.  I know that it seems like sour grapes.  If you are a Senators fan, you will probably agree with most of what I have to say.  If you are not, then you will no doubt call me a “homer”.  But I have a forum so I have some things to get off my chest.

While watching last night’s classic playoff game between the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins, and following my (admittedly Senators-slanted) Twitter timeline at the same time, it became clear that a lot of Senators fans have taken to the opinion that the NHL has put some kind of conspiracy in place to do what it takes to get the Pittsburgh Penguins into the next round, or at least as far as they can go.

May 19, 2013; Ottawa, ON, CAN; Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) in the first period in game three of the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Scotiabank Place. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

It became almost comical that the complaints rose as the frustration with the game deepened.

While I don’t buy the fact that the NHL has issued an off the record instructions to the officials to give the Penguins the benefit of the doubt, after watching that game it would be tough to convince an unbiased observer (as if there was really such a thing) that there wasn’t.

I give the court the following:

Exhibit A – On the first shift of the game, Erik Karlsson has his stick slashed out of his hands while he was in possession of the puck by Chris Kunitz.  This type of play is almost always called a penalty in the NHL.  I will get back to this one a little later.

Exhibit B – Before the game was 6 and a half  minutes old, Chris Phillips engages in a battle in the corner with two Penguins players, and battles both of them with shoves. Phillips was assessed a holding penalty, one that would be called less than half the time in the same situation. Seven minutes later, Craig Adams (who had drawn the penalty on Phillips) uses one arm to spin Jean-Gabriel Pageau around in the chase for a loose puck in the neutral zone.  Neither one took away a scoring chance, and were very similar plays in terms of how the player used their free arm.  The difference is, Pageau was hauled down, while Adams was merely held up by Phillips.  Phillips went to the box, while Adams went unpunished.

Exhibit CZack Smith‘s “roughing” call for a tap to the back of the helmet of Evgeni Malkin after the Senators forward had planted him with a legal hit.  Roughing would be a stretch in anyone’s book. Would it have been called if Smith had knocked Tyler Kennedy down and gave him a similar tap on the helmet?  Not likely, but since it was Malkin, the Penguins got the call.

Exhibit D – Calling Erik Karlsson for embellishment when he was grabbed in the face from behind by Pens defenseman Douglas Murray.  And then with the official waiting almost 4 full seconds until Pittsburgh played the puck and then calling the  coincidental minor gave me the impression that he realized that Ottawa had just had a power play and had the Penguins on their heels, and felt the need to make an even-up call.  Karlsson had his head pulled backwards by a player who got beat coming out of the corner and outweighs him by 70 lbs. Karlsson with the puck and a free lane to the net isn’t going to take a dive to get a penalty.  It doesn’t make sense.

Exhibit E – All 4 officials miss a blatant high stick call on Matt Cooke against Karlsson when the Ottawa defenseman held the puck in the offensive zone.  It was an intentional slash to the face that is unacceptable in any situation on any player, let alone one of the top players in the game. It wasn’t even debatable, it was unacceptable that they missed that call.

This is not to mention the Erik Karlsson penalty for slashing with a minute and a half remaining and down by a goal.  It wasn’t the traditional slash, it was an attempt to play the puck away from Cooke, and Karlsson’s stick was actually the one that was broken. Was it a penalty by the letter of the law?  Yes.  However, thirty seconds into the game the same play was not a penalty when done to Karlsson, but with a minute and a half left in a one goal playoff game, it is a penalty to Karlsson.  And coming mere minutes after a slash to his face went uncalled?

I hate blaming officiating, because they do have a very tough job.  I fully understand how petty it appears, and it seems desperate.   I hate thinking that the league might secretly favor one team advancing instead of another and that they might have some secret directive.  I don’t think they do, but games like this make my opinion waver.    But I also do not have to wait the 48 hours to make a comment about it, and I am not subject to the Doug Wilson $100K fine.

The officials lack of consistency in this game was an embarrassment to the sport and the league.  It is impossible for 2 teams to play hard for 60 (or more) minutes not knowing what is a penalty and what isn’t.   I am not saying Erik Karlsson should get any special treatment being one of the top 5 players in the game, but he certainly deserves equal treatment and in certain situations the benefit of the doubt for who he is, much like Sidney Crosby and Malkin get.

Yes, I am looking at this from a certain “Senators-leaning” perspective.  I am sure there are Penguins fans who are pointing in the other direction.  But face the facts, Ottawa went on to win the game, which tempered the anger of the team and the fan base somewhat. Karlsson didn’t get the “star treatment” and benefit of the doubt that the Penguins top players often get.

Either way, despite the fact that the Senators must feel they had to battle the Penguins, the stripes and the league, and despite the fact you won’t likely hear them state it publicly, they found a way to win.  Just like they have done all year.  But that doesn’t change the fact that it could have just as easily been a different outcome nor the apparent ineptitude of the way the game is called.