MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - Four of the top teams in the Canadian Hockey League fought their way into the MasterCard Memorial Cup this year. They have each battled through great adversity – illness, injury, long road trips, multiple-goal deficits and overtime – to finally reach the pinnacle of junior hockey. And yet, for the second time in five nights at what is supposed to be the CHL’s prestigious tournament, it wasn’t a bad break that determined the outcome of a game.
It was simply bad officiating.
On Tuesday night, the Saint John Sea Dogs were on the losing end of a 5-4 overtime loss in which the game-winner – scored by Kootenay Ice winger Matt Fraser – was clearly offside when the puck was carried in over the blue line by teammate Max Reinhart.
“I didn’t see if it was offside or not because I was looking up the whole time,” said Reinhart, the son of former NHL defenceman Paul Reinhart. “I had it on my stick and a guy fell down in front of me so I was a little distracted by that. If it was (offside), I’m not too concerned about it. It would have been a close call either way. I was able to get it down to Fraser and he made a great shot.”
The QMJHL champion Sea Dogs (2-1) weren’t too concerned about the loss, considering they were already guaranteed a berth in Sunday’s final after beating both the Ontario Hockey League-champion Owen Sound Attack and the tournament host Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors.
“We always want to win games, but we already knew we were in the final,” said Saint John forward Zack Phillips. “I guess it’s not as devastating as it could have been. It’s just one of those things that happens.”
Still, the thought of having your fate at the Memorial Cup decided by a blown call resonated with Kootenay coach Kris Knoblauch, even though this time the bad call helped his team stay alive with a berth in Thursday’s tiebreaker game. The way the tournament has been officiated to date, however, the next blown call could just as easily go against you.
“You don’t want to see your season end,” said Knoblauch, who added he had not seen the replay. “Fortunately for Saint John, (the loss) didn’t cost them anything. But at this point of the season you don’t want to a see a team being eliminated because of a bad penalty or a bad offside call. At this point in the season you expect the best from your players and you also expect the best from the officials.”
The Ice will face the loser of Wednesday’s rematch of the OHL Final between the Attack and the Majors, who have a win and loss each in the round robin. For some, this might have been karma for the Sea Dogs considering they won the tournament opener against Mississauga with a game-winning goal that was also clearly offside.
After that game, Majors head coach Dave Cameron had chalked it up to human error, though his players were slightly less forgiving.
"It's tough when you watch it up on the screen and everyone in the building and everyone on the ice knows it's offside, and that's how we lose," said Majors forward Justin Shugg after Friday’s game.
"If you can't make the right calls in a tournament like this, you shouldn't be reffing."
The controversy tarnished what was a good game between the two teams despite the fact that the Sea Dogs started their backup goaltender Mathieu Corbeil and rested some regulars. Stalwart defenceman Simon Despres, who has been battling bronchitis, was a scratch as was forward Michael Kirkpatrick, whom head coach Gerard Gallant said has been playing though an unspecified injury suffered against the Lewiston Maineiacs in the third round of the Quebec league playoffs.
“Back-to-back games are tough on some guys with injuries so that was the main reason for those guys,” said Gallant after his team’s second overtime victory in two nights. “If we would have played tomorrow night, you probably would have seen our full lineup to play the game. … I want to make sure our team is ready for Sunday and that’s the main reason more than anything.”
Sea Dogs forward Tomas Jurco continued his torrid scoring pace with a pair of goals in the game. A day after the YouTube sensation told reporters he was not a “clown” in a circus only here to perform stick tricks, the Slovakian sniper outdid David Beckham to score the game-tying goal when Phillips’ shot rang off his neck and found the net with 14.5 seconds left in the game.
“I didn’t even know that I scored,” said the 18-year-old Jurco, sporting a large red lump on the right side of his neck. “I was looking at all the guys because they came (over) to me and I thought, ‘They’re such good guys trying to ask me how I feel after taking a shot (off the head).’ Then I found out I scored, so that’s why they all came.”
For his part Phillips did admit to being worried about Jurco before seeing the goal light go off.
“He looked hurt,” said Phillips, who like Jurco is also expected to be selected high in next month’s NHL entry draft. “So I felt a little bit bad at first, but it was a lucky bounce.”
Surprisingly this wasn’t the first time Phillips had deflected a shot off the head of a teammate. In the opening-round playoff series against the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, Phillips banked a shot off the head of Russian teammate Stanislav Galiev.
“I don’t know why I tend to aim for guys’ heads, but I hit Galiev in the shoulder earlier this year and it bounced in against Cape Breton,” said Phillips. “A lot of weird bounces happen in the game.”
But in the end Jurco’s pain the neck was for naught, though he believes the hockey gods have a strange way of meting out justice and keeping balance even when the on-ice officials miss a call.
“Maybe the hockey god saw it and did the same thing to us?” said Jurco of the blown offside call.
“I think (the hockey god) was there with me when I scored off my head. But then sometimes when I miss an empty net or hit a crossbar, I’m kind of mad at him.
“I think he was good to me tonight.”