Five games into a hard-hitting, rollicking Stanley Cup Final, the main topic of conversation Thursday should have been goaltender Jordan Binnington’s 38-save performance in lifting the St. Louis Blues within one victory of their first Cup championship, or the toughness shown by 42-year-old Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara in playing through the pain of a nasty facial injury he had suffered three days earlier. Instead, the Blues’ 2-1 victory at TD Garden was overshadowed by the NHL’s suspect officiating, an unfortunate and too-common occurrence during these playoffs.
The league’s showcase event has become a parade of missed calls and mounting evidence on-ice officials can’t keep pace and are too open to suggestion. Blues coach Craig Berube’s insistence after Game 3 that his team was being penalized too often had the precise effect he wanted, winning the Blues the benefit of the doubt.
“I hope not,” Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron said when asked if Berube’s comments had swayed the officials. “I hope not, because that shouldn’t change anything.”
But it has.
“The narrative changed after Game 3,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “There was a complaint or whatever put forth by the opposition and it just seemed to change everything.”
The Blues had a 1-0 lead in the third period Thursday, built when Ryan O’Reilly took a between-the-legs pass from teammate Zach Sanford and lifted a backhander past Boston goalie Tuukka Rask 55 seconds into the second period. Bruins forward Noel Acciari had the puck in the Blues’ zone as he faced the boards. Blues winger Tyler Bozak came up behind him and used his right leg to hit the back of Acciari’s left leg, sending Acciari tumbling to the ice.
It should have been called tripping. It could have been called slew-footing. It wasn’t called at all. Play continued and David Perron scored from the right circle at 10:36, to the displeasure of fans who threw towels and debris on the ice. A dazed Acciari was pulled from the game by the concussion spotter and sent to the locker room for observation. He didn’t return. “Their player is on his way to the box, it’s right in front of the official,” Cassidy said. “It’s egregious. ... I’m a fan of this game. This is the National Hockey League and they’re getting a black eye with their officiating in the playoffs.”
The same could be said of the blatant, uncalled hand pass that allowed the San Jose Sharks to win Game 3 of their series against the Blues, or the five-minute major assessed on Cody Eakin of the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 of their series with San Jose, which gave the Sharks an unwarranted power play that fueled their rally. The NHL later called Vegas executives to apologize for the major penalty, but the damage was done.
Stephen Walkom, NHL senior vice president and director of officiating, declined to evaluate the Bozak hit or the actions of referees Steve Kozari and Kelly Sutherland. “We don’t make comments on judgment calls within games,” Walkom told a pool reporter. “There are hundreds of judgment calls in every game. The official on the play, he viewed it and he didn’t view it as a penalty at the time.”
The Bruins cut their deficit in half at 13:32, when Jake DeBrusk took a pass from Torey Krug and took a shot that glanced off Binnington’s stick and into the net, but they couldn’t pull even. “Sometimes you’ve just got to find a way to win. That’s what we did tonight,” St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said.
The Blues were calm afterward, showing no sign they’re thinking ahead to hugging the big, shiny trophy that will be in the house Sunday. “It’s nice being up 3-2 but that hasn’t won us anything,” center Brayden Schenn said. “We’re trying to be a focused, determined group. Moving forward, we know what’s at stake but we can’t let that run through your head too much.”
The Bruins know what’s at stake, too. They must win Sunday in the din at the Enterprise Center to bring the Final back to Boston next Wednesday for Game 7, and they aren’t ready to go home. They’ve done this before, having fallen behind three times in their first-round series against Toronto before winning in seven games, and they lost two of their first three games to Columbus in the second round before they reeled off an eight-game winning streak. But they did all that before they got battered and bruised by the Blues, and that’s a concern. Chara played less than 17 minutes and was out of position on the Blues’ first goal; defenseman Matt Grzelcyk again sat out because of effects of the concussion he suffered in Game 2.