How to fix the NHL's goaltender interference problem

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At least three times in the first round, a potentially important goal was at the heart of the NHL’s dumbest ongoing controversy.

The Calgary Flames and Washington Capitals both had questionable goals disallowed for goaltender interference, while the Toronto Maple Leafs had a questionable one stand.

All three goals or non-goals were of great consequence. In the game Colorado used to close out the series, Calgary thought it had pulled within one thanks to Johnny Gaudreau, but Sam Bennett was tangled up with a defender in front. In the tussle, someone definitely made contact with Philipp Grubauer in the blue paint and he definitely oversold it, so no goal. The Flames went down rather meekly after that.

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Earlier the same night, Auston Matthews had scored a goal after Zach Hyman initiated contact with Charlie McAvoy and backed into Tuukka Rask. The goal was allowed to stand, presumably because Rask seemed to have time to reset and the shot itself came from the opposite side of the ice. That goal ended up being the difference in a 2-1 game.

And then on Tuesday, the Washington Capitals seemed to tie the game late after Evgeny Kuznetsov tried to tuck the puck around Petr Mrazek. Alex Ovechkin crashed in to tap the loose puck, which was under Mrazek but certainly not under his control. The ref didn’t rule anything before ruling no goal. Review confirmed, the NHL told us, that Ovechkin had basically pitchforked the puck into the net. Carolina scored again to put the game out of reach less than 90 seconds later.

We can all have our own opinions on whether these were good goals or not, and we can even have a pretty good idea of why a goal may or may not have been waved off. For me, the Flames’ goal should have counted, the Leafs goal could have gone either way, and the Caps goal should not have counted. But the fact that there can be any opinion on this at all, and that opinions can differ so widely even among supposed experts, tells you this whole thing is totally screwed.

It’s an imperfect measure, of course, because coaches sometimes used to use them as a timeout, and sometimes referees initiate reviews on their own. But since the goalie interference challenge was introduced in the 2015-16 season, teams are only successful in overturning a challenge about 27 percent of the time (193 out of 716 tries). The success rate was actually lower than that this season.

It’s pretty clear, then, that what actually constitutes goaltender interference is not actually clear to anyone and everything is decided on a case-by-case basis. And if you want to say, “Well, it’s like pornography: You know it when you see it,” I guess I understand that argument because it’s hard to codify it without just saying, “A goal doesn’t count if you make contact with the goalie when he’s touching any part of the crease.” People won’t like it but at least it’s better than the guessing game.

Hyman, centre, was involved in one of the controversial interference calls in the first round. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Hyman, centre, was involved in one of the controversial interference calls in the first round. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Another problem is that even the refs don’t really seem to have a good handle on what is or isn’t a goal in any given situation. As mentioned, there was no signal on the Ovechkin no-goal one way or the other until half the Hurricanes on the ice surrounded the ref to complain, at which point he indicated “no goal.”

So here’s a question: Why let the referee have any say in this kind of thing at all? Why should there have to be a ton of sufficient evidence to overturn a call that, borderline as so many of them are in the first place, will take three, five, or seven minutes to confirm?

Just let the situation room handle the whole thing on every goal. Most of the time, you won’t need any real input at all. There were 523 goalie interference challenges since 2015-16, of which 193 were overturned, meaning we’re dealing with a small fraction of all goals over a four-year period that need to be looked at because the scored-upon team wants it to happen.

So go to the situation room, let them look at every goal, whether it’s an empty-netter or it’s scored with four guys lying on top of the goalie. Often they’ll just phone over to say it’s a good goal without the need for a second look. Maybe that’s logistically impossible in the regular season (I doubt it, but maybe) but it’s easy enough in the playoffs, when there’s never going to be more than two or three games going on at the same time.

And that thing every retired goalie in the league was saying last week about putting an actual goaltender in the situation room? The fact that this even needs to be said, let alone the fact that it hasn’t happened yet, shows how stupid this whole thing is.

As with so many problems in the NHL, this is an obvious problem with an obvious solution that no one wants to change because of, I don’t know, tradition? Like, it’s tradition for decisions to be shrouded in mystery that can’t even be explained on the ice by the ref who has the mic turned on and is saying whether it is or isn’t a goal anyway? Am I getting that right?

Much like the playoff format or the puck-over-the-glass rule, everyone hates this aspect of the game, but it’s not going to change because why would the league ever do something to make its product more enjoyable? We’re probably closer to the league not even blasting out explanations on social media 10 minutes after the fact — wouldn’t want to embarrass the refs, right? — than actually making sure this thing that is universally known to suck no longer sucks.

There are lots of things you could do to make this whole situation better without even changing the current rules, but this is going to continue forever.

Why wouldn’t it? This is the NHL, and actively antagonizing players, coaches, and fans is always going to be the order of the day.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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