NHL’s next goal: Get in-the-crease rule right


Pity Tomas Holmstrom. How often are you going to see those three words in a row?<br>


DALLAS — Pity Tomas Holmstrom.

How often are you going to see those three words in a row?

But really. For the second time in as many NHL Western Conference finals, the Detroit Red Wings’ hard-headed Swede, who has made a living out of obstructing goaltenders’ vision and scoring garbage goals no longer than his hockey stick, is deserving of our sympathy. A limited amount. Certain terms and conditions may apply. See your dealer for details.

Last year, Anaheim’s Chris Pronger tried to make an imprint of Holmstrom’s face in the glass of the Honda Center, and was suspended for his trouble. Holmstrom looked not much the worse for wear, but on his playoff-beard-encrusted mug, it was hard to tell.

Wednesday night in Dallas, Holmstrom was hovering just outside the goal crease in front of Stars goalie Marty Turco in the second period of a scoreless Game 4 when Pavel Datsyuk ripped a shot past Turco that the ’keeper never saw. Which, when you think of it, is just about the only way you score goals in the playoffs anymore.

Referee Kelly Sutherland saw the number 96 on the player’s back, made the entirely reasonable assumption that he was in the crease, and disallowed the goal.

Replays showed otherwise. Not only weren’t Holmstrom’s skates in the blue paint, there was no contact being made with Turco.

How about that? After a lifetime of knocking over 7-Elevens, the one time Holmstrom was only there to buy a Slurpee, they nail him on reputation. And even the security camera couldn’t verify his innocence, because contact with a goaltender is not a reviewable offence.

It’s referee’s discretion, all the way.

“Kelly’s a good referee, he just blew the call. That’s life,” said Wings coach Mike Babcock.

Well, it’s Rule 69. If you’re going to blow a call . . .

Of course, Babcock didn’t quite leave it at that. He talked about referees being coached on players to watch and said that was fine with him — watch, by all means. “But it’s got to happen. You can’t just dream stuff up.”

“Babcock said we were watching for it. Listen, we’d be fools if we didn’t meet before games to talk about Holmstrom. He crowds the crease. You don’t have to be Sam flippin’ Pollock to figure that out,” the NHL’s senior VP of hockey operations, Colin Campbell, said in a telephone interview.

“Now, you may say if we reviewed it, we’d make a different call. But where do you start with reviewing plays and where do you stop? Goals that are scored when a play is close to being offside? High-stick infractions? I mean, we’d suck the life right out of our game.

“We’re trying to protect the goalies’ right to do their jobs. We can’t have them getting hurt. We can’t have Nick Kypreos on Grant Fuhr happening again. If you lose your goalie, you’re screwed.”

Campbell, it should be pointed out, made one of his first acts the abolition of the ridiculous “toe-in-the-crease” rule, under which it was an offence for an attacking player to have a sliver of a skate blade inside the blue paint, regardless of whether the goalie was within six feet of it. It was after the brouhaha in Buffalo, where Dallas’s Brett Hull won the 1999 Stanley Cup with an overtime goal when his skate was clearly inside Dominik Hasek’s no-toe zone. The league declared it a good goal, and tens of thousands of Buffalonians are still sour about it.

“That wasn’t hockey, the way the rule was,” said Campbell. “You could have a goalie hugging the near post and the puck comes across and a guy at the back post puts it in, and it’s no good because he’s got a skate inside the crease?

“So we worked a whole day to fix the rule. And the whole premise is, the goalie has the right to make a play on the puck without being interfered with, inside or outside the crease. And the referee gets to make the call, at his discretion.”

Holmstrom, in Sutherland’s view, might not have been inside the crease, but his overhanging butt prevented Turco from getting all the way out to the edge of the blue paint to get the best angle on the shooter.

“I didn’t know about that rule,” said Wings captain Nick Lidstrom, to an amused group of reporters. “I thought it was the skates.”

Here, truly, is where we depart from reality.

Sutherland, positioned somewhere on or behind the goal-line — that would be, anyway, a reasonable place for him to be — is supposed to tell, by looking past Turco and maybe the crossbar, whether Holmstrom’s rear end is overhanging the invisible plane that extends from the outer rim of blue paint to the heavens above?

I’m all for protecting goalies from injury, but not from being scored upon. The blue paint is there for a reason. If that’s not enough space for the goalies, make it bigger. But wherever the line is, that’s where the line is, and preventing a forward from operating outside of it just because the goalie isn’t happy that he’s there is absurd.

Is the aim not to encourage scoring? Is that not why the league is about to shrink goaltenders’ equipment? Is that not why the trapezoidal zone was put in behind the nets, to limit how far goaltenders can come out to thwart forecheckers by playing the puck?

We’re not talking about an injury situation here. We’re talking about a restraining zone that needs to be respected — and as long as it is, fair ball.

Wednesday’s non-goal could have been reviewed in five seconds. The very first camera angle showed Holmstrom wasn’t inside the crease.

Of course, it’s possible we’re making a mountain of a molehill.

Holmstrom scored a goal in Game 1 on which he was all over Turco like a hair shirt, clearly inside the paint, and there was no call.

There have probably been five times as many of those as the ones that have been called back. If you’re not going to give the goals back that he got through skulduggery, maybe you should accept with a measure of grace the much rarer instance of a Holmstrom goal mistakenly disallowed.

And let’s face it: they’re up 3-1 in the series, going home to Joe Louis Arena on Saturday. If they can’t finish it there . . .

“It depends on how the (Detroit) coaching staff and (general manager) Kenny Holland want to play it,” said Campbell. “If it was me, I’d say, ‘Stuff happens. We were still 1-1 after that call. The game was there to be won.’”

Yup. And that’s probably just how the Wings will handle it, privately.

But the play should be subject to review. A goal in a playoff game is too valuable a thing not to get the call right, even if it takes a while.

Vancouver Sun


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