Sunday, May 9, 2010

Were Ovechkin and the Capitals robbed?

The case for review of goaltender interference penalties and "no goal" calls

Sometimes. I admit it, though I'm not a major hockey fan, I live close enough to Washington DC to get whiffs of their sports news -- and nobody could miss the hope and longing in the city for a winner. (Why is it that regular season winning DOESN'T get as much recognition as the playoffs? Oh, I know it's that championship thing, but winning consistently is very difficult, especially with injuries and juggled lineups and such -- and that's true of any sport. So the regular season champion should get more recognition than they do. Even though conferences and divisions are unbalanced. Oh well.)

So I watched game 7 of the Canadiens vs. the Capitals: a game that never should have happened, because the Capitals took the close-out game 5 too lightly, but that's happened in sports before too. Clearly one thing going on was that the Capitals didn't try to adjust ENOUGH to what Montreal was doing. (Brad Gilbert in tennis was famous for being able to do this; he said something like, figure out what your opponent doesn't like, and keep doing it. He got in McEnroe's head a few times doing that. But anyway...) Montreal and Halak were clearly in the Capitals heads. What they needed was something to get them out of the funk.

They almost got it when Ovechkin tied the score -- oh sorry, the goal was waved off -- at the beginning of the third period. It was a VERY questionable call. I've watched the replay, and here are the cardinal points: (below this, I've got a detailed image analysis; looking at details through a microscope for failure analysis scenarios means taking your time and considering everything)

1) Knuble's skate, inside the crease, touched Halak's skate before the puck got there. Amazing shot, it threaded under Knuble's legs through a space about twice as wide as the puck.

2) BEFORE Knuble's skates get inside the crease, Hal Gill puts his shoulder and hip into Knuble, trying to block his access to the front of the goal. They are clearly in contact. Knuble moves (or is moved) backward, his skate touches Halak's, he moves forward, puck goes in.

3) Halak was able to make a complete butterfly and stretch after Knuble goes by. Knuble's contact did not significantly impede his ability to play the puck. You can see in one of the screencaps below that the puck is in the air while Halak is still standing; this is after Knuble's skate touched his! Knuble is out of Halak's way when Ovechkin shoots; he in no way impedes Halak's movement.

4) After the butterfly, Halak goes down on his butt as Knuble goes by. The ref waves off the goal.

Looking at all of this, I'm convinced that referee Brad Watson waved off the goal because he thought Knuble knocked down Halak. It looked like he did. But Knuble didn't. Did the ref really have the angle to judge whether Knuble's skate touched Halak's skate from the other side of the net, before the shot? I doubt it. Should he even have been looking there (and was he)?

According to the goalie interference rule, incidental contact with the goalie in the crease by the attacking player when a goal is scored disallows the goal. No penalty, but no goal.

But the incidental contact in this case was not initiated by the attacking player, it was caused by the defensive player. Does that matter?

I think it does. The contact was minor, and was not due to the positioning of the attacking player, because his positioning into the crease was forced by the defensive player. Furthermore, when the shot was released, Halak appeared ABLE to make the play; he just didn't because he got beaten. Ovechkin's shot was fabulous because of both where and how he released it -- with a Canadien right and front of him -- and where he put it.

It happened in milliseconds, and the referee was on the WRONG side of the goal to see the contact between Gill and Knuble, or for that matter, it was probably extremely hard for him to see the moment of incidental contact between their skates, before the shot.

So the question comes down to: should that call, a critical call in a critical game, have been made? And now I think the answer is philosophically no. If at all possible, the referees should not play a major part in deciding the outcome of a game on a call that is questionable. This was. He took a goal off the scoreboard, and it can't be reviewed. The fact that it can't be reviewed is one reason that the call shouldn't have been made when it was that close. Getting that goal would have changed the entire rhythm of the game. It would have been tied. The crowd would have gone nuts. It likely affected the outcome substantially.

No fan of any sport wants to see a referee's decision on a close questionable call affect an important game. And this did, in a major way -- the Capitals would have had an entire period with a crowd behind them and a sense of determination that they weren't out of it yet.

That's why it was a questionable (bad?) call. It's too bad that the Capitals got into that position, or even Game 7, for that matter. But they could have escaped, and it could have been a truly exciting outcome. But the referee imposed his will on the game on something that was not clear-cut at all.

I've been taught my whole life not to question a referee's calls. They can go either way, and bad calls can victimize either team. And later in the game a case might be made that a Canadiens goal was waved off that shouldn't have been.

But I sure wish I could review the referee's perception and his POV of that play, because if he made the call because he thought Knuble knocked Halak down, then it was truly an atrocious call. Why was he sure it was goaltender interference? What did he see?

We'll never know. But I do know one thing. Sports needs excitement. I wish we could have seen how exciting that third period could have been. Were the Capitals robbed? He made the call according to the rulebook and what he thought he saw. He did his job. But because of timing and positioning and a judgment call, we sports fans were robbed of a potentially breathtaking twenty minutes of sport.

Here's some background information

Official Brad Watson: very experienced

Unfortunate call against Detroit by Watson (2009 playoffs)

Watson's call against Detroit discussed by another official

On the game 7 no goal: The goal that should have been: Caps loss a fraud

[Terry] Gregson [Senior Vice President and Director of Officiating for the NHL] discusses playoff officiating on NHL Hour

"Gregson explained why referee Brad Watson made the correct call in taking away a goal by Alex Ovechkin because teammate Mike Knuble was called for being in the crease and impeding the ability of Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak to stop the puck.

"Brad was very decisive, and as soon as I saw it on the television, from an officiating
perspective, I knew it wasn't a good goal and Brad reacted accordingly," Gregson said.

"When we go into each playoff round, we have the series managers discuss things with the coaches and general managers. One area we talk about is protection of the goaltender. And one of the statements we say to the coaches and GMs is that bumping the goalie means the risk of a penalty or a goal being taken away, so make sure your players are aware of the blue ice and allowing the goalie to play his position.

"... The first thing would be the presence in the blue paint -- is that going to allow Halak to make the play? And then when it's on the right-hand side and the contact is there, the arm went up because he felt Halak could not make the play he desired to make."

At one point in the late 1990s, a skate in the crease was automatically enough for a goal to be disallowed, but that is no longer the case. Gregson pointed out that a goal might be scored on a shot from the right point with a player in the left of the crease, but if he does not in any way impede the goalie from making the move he intends to make to stop the puck, the goal is still considered good."

My immediate reaction to this? "He FELT Halak could not make the play he desired to make????????" NO. You make a call that important only if you are SURE the goalie was substantially interfered with.

Bumping the goalie? It wasn't even a bump, it was a touch, before the goalie could make a
play on a shot that hadn't been taken yet.

So, considering everything to this point, I thought this was a protoytypical Bad call.


But here's what I think happened. Gregson noted how decisive Watson was when he made the call. If you look at the YouTube video (link below) that shows the scene both from behind and above the net, it really, really looks like Knuble knocked down Halak! It's hard to believe he didn't. But the pictures show that he didn't. His positioning made Halak stand up straight, and probably contributed to his ignominious sit after the shot, but he didn't knock him down -- he didn't even bump him to knock him down -- the skate touch before the shot did not contribute to Halak's seated position after the shot went in.

Ovechkin's Goal Disallowed [Round 1, Game 7] 4/28/10 (YouTube video -- there's 7 pages of discussion of this video!)

But that's what it looks like. So I think -- after thinking this over a lot -- that Watson made the right call based on what he thought he saw. I cannot believe he wasn't watching Ovechkin -- he should have been, looking for a slash or a trip or a hook or a couple other applicable penalties I don't know the names of. In half a second or less, the shot goes in, comes out, Halak goes down. Bang-bang-bang. The brain fills in the gaps and Watson "saw" Knuble knock Halak down. Hell, that's what I see happening from the view behind the net, too!

So, I cannot fault Watson for doing his job. What I can fault is that goaltender interference calls are not reviewable. Heck, they make a judgment call if a puck that goes off an attacker's skate was kicked (was there a "kicking motion"?). 90%+ of the time a goaltender interference call is going to be really easy to judge; the goalie gets significantly interfered with and can't make a play on a shot.

But this shot was in the other 10%. Add it up:

1) Knuble didn't initiate the contact with the goaltender; he obviously was being pushed back by Gill, who was trying to block Knuble from getting in front of the net. But Knuble was even able to reposition and get his skates out of the crease by the time the shot went in. When you look at it, he knew exactly where his skates were. Somewhat amazing.

2) Knuble was clearly not touching Halak when the shot went in, was not in the crease, and Halak got a full extension -- late! Halak was beaten by the shot -- he was going down as the shot was over the blocker.

3) It looks very much like Knuble knocked Halak down. But he did not. His position may have contributed to Halak's sprawl after the shot, but that's not goaltender interference.

Here's the rule:

69.1 Interference on the Goalkeeper – This rule is based on the premise that an attacking player’s position, whether inside or outside the crease, should not, by itself, determine whether a goal should be allowed or disallowed. In other words, goals scored while attacking players are standing in the crease may, in appropriate circumstances be allowed. 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 judgment of the Referee(s), and not by means of video replay or review.

[Standing in the crease has sorta gotta mean the player's skates are in the crease. It can't be about a butt hanging over the line!]

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.

If an attacking player has been pushed, shoved, or fouled by a defending player so as to cause him to come into contact with the goalkeeper, such contact will not be deemed contact initiated by the attacking player for purposes of this rule, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.

69.3 Contact Inside the Goal Crease – If an attacking player initiates contact with a goalkeeper, incidental or otherwise, while the goalkeeper is in his goal crease, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.

If a goalkeeper, in the act of establishing his position within his goal crease, initiates contact with an attacking player who is in the goal crease, and this results in an impairment of the goalkeeper’s ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.

If, after any contact by a goalkeeper who is attempting to establish position in his goal crease, the attacking player does not immediately vacate his current position in the goal crease (i.e. give ground to the goalkeeper), and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed. In all such cases, whether or not a goal is scored, the attacking player will receive a minor penalty for goalkeeper interference.

(Knuble did!)

If an attacking player establishes a significant position within the goal crease, so as to obstruct the goalkeeper’s vision and impair his ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.

(Knuble didn't!)

For this purpose, a player "establishes a significant position within the crease" when, in the Referee’s judgment, his body, or a substantial portion thereof, is within the goal crease for more than an instantaneous period of time.

[When the puck goes in (see below), Knuble's butt is over the line. Is that a substantial portion of his body?]

Ultimately, this was a very questionable call. The timing was so tight between Knuble's move toward the goal, Gill's bumping Knuble backward, the skate touch, Knuble's repositioning (he did give ground), and then the shot -- which Halak missed, because it was over the blocker -- it wasn't clear-cut. Now, were it reviewable, would the NHL have overturned it? I think that they would have let it stand, because even though I think Watson called it because it looked like Knuble knocked Halak down, there was contact before the shot. I don't think the contact interfered with Halak's ability to make a play on the shot, though. The biggest question in my mind would be whether they would judge that Gill caused Knuble's contact with Halak. I think he clearly did, but the attacking player is supposed to make a reasonable effort to avoid the contact. Knuble was there first, just barely; after his skate touched Halak's due to Gill's push, Knuble moved forward and had his skates out of the crease when the shot went in. (In a space of time measured in tenths of seconds.)

Despite the fact that the Capitals played poorly the whole series, sports history is full of events where a single moment turned around the fortunes of a team. Had this goal stood, it could have been one of those moments. We'll never know. What I've presented here, for me, supports both the call that the referee made on the ice and the case that this was something that in this era of HD TV and instant replay should have been both reviewable and reviewed, because it was SO critical. At least if it was reviewed you can look at every single reason that the goal was disallowed or counted.

In this case, we'll never know, and that's a shame.

[An additional thought occurred to me: why not give the coach the opportunity to have a goaltender interference call reviewed -- either one in which a goal was disallowed or one where goaltender interference should have been called; see the Blackhawks-Canucks analysis below. By the way, Go Blackhawks! Football allows the coach to call for a review; you lose a time-out if the call isn't reversed. Tennis has a great review system on line calls. I say, give the coach a chance to ask for a review of goaltender interference. If it isn't reversed, they get a penalty. Make it tough, give 'em two back-to-back minors, i.e., 4 minutes, so that they really have to think about it before requesting a review. But give 'em a chance, at least, especially on potentially critical goals.]

Image analysis: you can click on each picture to see it considerably larger)

Goal sequence, without commentary:

Now here's the same sequence with my annotated comments:


Blackhawks Canucks -- NO interference?

Byfuglien ruffles Canucks as Blackhawks take 2-1 series lead

"Byfuglien, who skated along the end boards taunting the crowd after his second goal, was back in the spotlight - and on top of Luongo - for the third. Luongo was in position to make the save before Byfuglien pushed him into the net, but the goal - originally given to Kane - was upheld after a video review."

Big Buff roughs up Canucks.

"Patrick Kane was the lucky recipient of the scorer's largesse, at first - but clearly the puck entered the net on a one-yard run with plenty of help from the offensive line, with Byfuglien leading the blocking. Or as they say under the twisted logic of the NHL's Toronto office: ``Good goal!''

Screencaps: if you listen to the commentary (sorry I can't give a direct link to the video, the commentator says: "... the letter of the law should be that, the goaltender has to have the ability to make the save..."

(CHI) Byfuglien, D. (13:58 in 3rd) (Game highlight video)

So a mugging in the crease is allowed as a goal, and Knuble's skate touch and pass-by in front is goalie interference.

Right. Seems to me there's a slight problem.

Goal sequence:

A couple of Blackhawks, a Canuck, and a goalie Canuck in the crease

Luongo gets pushed back; puck is by his blocker, about to slide in

From above:

Puck is under everybody in the crease

Puck visible right next to Luongo's blocker

Puck by blocker and corner of the net as Luongo is pushed back; puck slid in a moment later

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