Thursday, April 25, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Love hurts, the old song says, and that’s especially true this week for Vegas Golden Knights fans.
The team’s Game 7 overtime loss Tuesday night was heartbreaking. But worse yet was how it happened — triggered by a horrible call that allowed the San Jose Sharks to escape an almost certain defeat.
The call was the hockey equivalent of a long count in boxing. The Sharks, down 3-0 deep into the final period, were on the verge of being knocked out before being saved by the referees.
Credit goes to them, as they took full advantage of the opportunity by scoring four goals in short order to take a 4-3 lead. Also, and this can’t be stressed enough, here’s hoping that San Jose captain Joe Pavelski will make a quick recovery after taking a frightening fall that prompted the penalty.
But this was clearly a case when a blown call significantly affected the outcome of a game. The NHL should take steps to prevent such a situation from happening again.
Poor calls are part of sports, no doubt, but other leagues have established protocols and procedures to limit their impact on games. The NBA, for example, has created a massive oversight system headed by a former superintendent of the Air Force Academy to review referees’ calls and, when appropriate, overrule them on the spot.
Few are defending the officials’ call against the Knights. It came when Vegas center Cody Eakin shoved Pavelski with his stick after a faceoff, causing the Sharks player to collide with the Knights’ Paul Stastny and crash to the ice on the right side of his head. Pavelski appeared to go unconscious, and immediately began bleeding from out of his helmet.
It was a terrible sight, and Eakin deserved a penalty. But officials went wrong in assessing a five-minute major infraction against him.
Not only did that penalty trigger an automatic ejection for Eakin, it left the Knights playing short-handed for the full five minutes of the penalty. Had Eakin been whistled for a two-minute minor penalty, which was also an option, the Knights would have gone back to full strength immediately after the Sharks scored their first goal during the penalty period.
Knights fans know what happened next. San Jose went on a furious tear, scoring four goals in rapid succession in what would turn out to be the only lead switch in the seven-game series. The Knights tied the game late in the third period before falling in overtime.
Just like that, Vegas went from mopping up and celebrating in the locker room to being off for the summer. And what had been a remarkable series turned on a single call.
What’s needed is for the NHL to establish a policy to review penalty calls, something that it currently doesn’t do.
Some hockey fans might object to that suggestion on grounds that it would cause too many delays in the action, but the league could fashion a rule that would limit interruptions while still giving coaches a chance to request reviews. The rule should be in play for calls like the one against the Knights, which the referees by all appearances made based on the outcome of the play as opposed to what precipitated it.
The NFL took similar corrective action recently, establishing reviews for pass interference calls after a controversial non-call in the NFC Championship Game in January proved critical in the Los Angeles Rams’ victory against the New Orleans Saints.
The NHL should follow suit. As was proven Tuesday night, officials currently can have far too much influence over the outcome of games.
Granted, the referees can’t solely be blamed for the Knights’ failure to advance in the playoffs. Vegas had a 3-1 lead in the series, had a blizzard of chances to win in overtime in Game 6, and played poorly after the Eakin penalty.
But it’s not good for the game that single calls can be so pivotal.
The Knights will be back stronger and even hungrier next year, we’re sure, which is a silver lining amid the gloom this week. We can also take pride in how they represented our city throughout the season and proved that the remarkable successes they achieved last year were no fluke.
But while Las Vegas hockey fans may be fairly new at this game, we know when we’ve been wronged by the league. There won’t be a happy ending this season, but the NHL can salvage it to some degree by changing its rules.