Officials' playoff picture not so black and white

Updated: April 4, 2006, 11:28 AM ET
ESPN.com

OPENING FACEOFF
NHL officials
All the hours of debating NHL officiating, all the millions and millions of words written to decipher and debate the new standards, and it's all about to be rendered moot.

As much as the past six months have been crucial to the NHL's successes this season, the playoffs and how they're going to be called by on-ice officials present an entirely different beast. And the extent to which the NHL is able to replicate in the postseason what it already has accomplished in the regular season will be the final word on whether the league is made of stone or sand.

The dilemma is both simple and wildly complex.

Simple, in the sense that all officials have to do is maintain what they've done all year. If it's a foul, call it. Hook, hold, interfere, and you go to the box.

But the playoffs have, since the beginning of time, represented a different hockey reality. It is why they call it the second season. The playoffs have always been about gutting it out, playing in pain and, sadly, playing through all kinds of crap that the NHL has been adamant about eliminating from the game.

Remember the 2004 Stanley Cup final between Calgary and Tampa Bay? Not a square inch of free ice for either team. Was it hard-fought? Absolutely. Compelling? In many ways. But sit down and start counting up the hooks, holds and cases of interference, and within moments you'll be in a catatonic trance.

That series should not take place this spring. Not if the league's masters of discipline have their way.

Executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell is unequivocal: there's no turning back, no backsliding.

"There is no way. You can't," Campbell told ESPN.com this week. "You can't have [the referees] making calls one way all year and then not call it."

The NHL's officials, an unheralded bunch, have done a remarkable job in adjusting to a dramatically new level of enforcement demanded by the league. Not that there haven't been problems.

When there were concerns old habits were starting to creep back into the mix, head of officiating Stephen Walkom called for a refresher course during the Olympic break. The event may have been too effective, as Campbell thought that, when play returned, referees were calling too much.

But as every day passes, the dynamics change for the referees and the men they police. Early in the season, players might have shaken their heads, and coaches and GMs would shrug their shoulders at calls they might have deemed questionable.

Now, the playoffs are on the line for some 20 NHL teams and the stakes have jumped considerably. When the playoffs begin April 21, those stakes will take another monumental jump up.

Everyone knows it.

Teams that have already qualified for the playoffs are already lobbying and planting seeds with league officials, Campbell said.

So-and-so will call and rip the league for a missed or phantom call that cost them a game and imply that they're owed one.

"They're going to try us on, that's for sure," Campbell said of teams.

The old playoff mantra was "let them play." That shouldn't change. If players can play within the rules, they'll succeed. If the tight-checking Devils can bottle up the high-flying Senators or Hurricanes within the new standards, good for them. But they shouldn't be able to fall back on old obstructionist tactics to make up for a lack of speed and skill.

The dilemma for the referees is to block out the significant external issues -- a seventh and deciding game or overtime or a one-goal differential -- that used to play into how a game was called in the old days. It's often been said that officials don't want to influence the outcome of a game. But by not calling the hooking, holding and interference in the past, they had done just that.

"We harp on [the referees] to make sure it's the right call," Campbell said. "Just make sure it's a good penalty."

They'll have help. When the playoffs begin, there will be a series supervisor on-site for each of the eight first-round series, and that supervisor will in turn have a counterpart back at headquarters in Toronto, monitoring games with the assistance of high-tech recording equipment, including new TiVo devices that will aid in reviews of questionable goals and/or calls.

What's at stake? Just the league's reputation. Here's hoping they're up to the task.
-- Scott Burnside

CAUGHT IN THE NETS
DON'T TINKER WITH PLAYOFFS!
Hands up!

Those who wish Boston, the New York Islanders, Toronto, Florida and Atlanta were going hammer and tong to decide the ninth and 10th playoff berths in the Eastern Conference?

OK, Don Waddell, put your hand down. You too, Mike Keenan.

How about watching Phoenix and Minnesota scrabbling and clawing to move into 10th in the Western Conference? No? Didn't think so.

In the aftermath of the NHL lockout, there was much debate about adding two more teams to the playoff mix in each conference. The idea was that teams in seventh through 10th would play a mini play-in series before the start of the traditional four rounds of best-of-seven competition.

The rationale (apart from being an obvious cash grab) was to maintain a higher level of interest in more markets deeper in the regular season. But if this season's frantic playoff hunts in both conferences are any indication, there's no reason to expand the playoff pool.

Those teams currently residing outside the playoff bubble (San Jose, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Florida, Toronto, et al) will all have to put together significant streaks to qualify. They should. They all deserve to be exactly where they are for a variety of reasons, just as those teams currently holding postseason tickets deserve to be where they are.

Does that mean good teams will be on the outside looking in? Sure. But, too bad. Next season, play better. It remains a more palatable option than having lesser teams clutter up a meaningless playoff round that would actually diminish the current races. -- S.B.

THE FIVE HOLE

E.J. Hradek
It's crunch time, baby! (I think I'm seeing too much Dick Vitale on "SportsCenter.") The defending champion Lightning have an excellent opportunity to secure their playoff spot this week. The Bolts open a three-game home stand Monday night against the red-hot Panthers, who are 11-2 in their last 13 games. A Lightning win would just about stop the Panthers' late charge. Then, on Thursday, Tampa hosts Atlanta, which is still trying to make good on GM Don Waddell's playoff guarantee. If Vincent Lecavalier and his mates can outscore Ilya Kovalchuk and the Thrashers, the Lightning finally might be able to turn their attention toward the postseason.
Scott Burnside
San Jose at Colorado (Wednesday): A week ago, the red-hot Sharks looked like they weren't going to be denied in their late-season push to the playoffs. But the Sharks have lost three in a row to teams behind them in the standings, and all of a sudden, Wednesday's game in Colorado looks like a must-win. The Avalanche are in a win-one-lose-one pattern that continues to keep them somewhere between the top of the Northwest Division and out of the playoffs altogether.
FANTASY ISLAND
Who to start: Vesa Toskala is 11-2 with a 2.75 goals-against average and .897 save percentage in 13 games since Feb. 8. He could be a great second goalie for your team down the stretch as the Sharks fight for a playoff spot in the West.
Who to drop: Might be worth benching Mike Modano for part of the week as he might miss another game with a mystery "lower body injury."
IN THE BOX
Some teams are battling for playoff position, while others are just plain battling. Which leads us to this week's selection of "The Blues Are Still Blue" (off the new album by Belle and Sebastian). St. Louis has never missed the postseason in the team's 38-year history, but they will this season.
THEY SAID IT
"Without question, he's the MVP. Every time he gets the puck on his stick, he makes a good play. He's tough to defend. Them getting in the playoffs is great for hockey. I think the new rules have helped them out considerably. They're a tough team to play against."

-- Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro on the Rangers' Jaromir Jagr