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PITTSBURGH – Let’s say you’re playing a video game. Let’s say that early on in the game, your character has taken on significant battle damage, or has been put in a precarious position by a foe.
You’re not having fun. You’d rather just begin again, with a fresh set of hearts. And so you hit the reset button on the console, and start the game over.
The coach’s challenge by the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final was their reset button.
The Nashville Predators went from a 1-0 lead on the road in Game 1 to a 3-0 deficit by the end of the first period, thanks to a coach’s challenge issued by the Pittsburgh Penguins bench that wiped away P.K. Subban’s goal on an offside.
“It was something that gave us life,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, whose team would win a bizarre 5-3 game that included a blown three-goal lead and 37 minutes without a Pittsburgh shot. “We were a bit sloppy from the start. They came out hard.”
The Subban “goal” came at 7:13 of the first period. It was wiped away when Andy Saucier, the Penguins’ video coach, sent word to the bench that Filip Forsberg may have been offside on the play.
The play went under review, and it was determined that Forsberg “preceded the puck into the attacking zone, nor did he have possession and control before crossing the blue line.”
“I don’t know the explanation for why that’s offside. If it was about possession, I think he had full possession,” said Subban. “But that didn’t dictate the outcome of the game. I think we outplayed them.”
That’s ultimately true, including an NHL record 37 minutes without a Penguins shot, but let’s be real here: The Penguins are now 12-2 in the playoffs when scoring the first goal. The Predators are 7-2 in the playoffs when scoring the first goal, after going 25-4-8 in the regular season when doing so. When the Penguins have surrendered the first goal in the playoffs, they’re 1-5.
This mattered. A lot.
“That sucked,” center Colton Scissons said of the disallowed goal. “And then they took the momentum and scored a few quick ones.”
Coach Peter Laviolette said “the impact of that moment, then the chain of events that happened after that with the penalty kills I think changed the course of the game.”
The replay of the Forsberg play was parsed by the hockey world on Monday night, and many found it inconclusive.
“The skate looks like it’s on the ice, the toe is there, but the puck is not inside the zone. It has to be completely in,” said Ed Olczyk, NBC analyst, on the League’s American rights-holder network. “It looks like the skate is on the ice there. If his toe is on the ice before the puck crosses the line, it’s onside.”
But the play was determined to be offside.
The coach’s challenge for offside is beyond problematic. Yes, there are cameras on the bluelines that have given these reviews a modicum of clarity, but they aren’t at ice level and don’t have enough definition at long distances. So a play like the Forsberg one is muddled due to perspective.
But beyond that, there’s the philosophical problem: The NHL is constantly trying to figure out ways to increase scoring, and here is a mechanism that corrects reasonable human error to take goals off the board. This isn’t the physical molestation of a goalie to allow a goal – a play that should be reviewed, frankly – but something that happens quickly and innocuously throughout the game on non-scoring plays.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, hours before Game 1, praised the coach’s challenge and the video review system. “We think it’s working the way it was intended to,” he said.
Crosby said the players are in favor it, which is usually what happens when a goal call goes their way. “With cameras and the way they have it, we have the opportunity to get it right. So we might as well. With one challenge, it’s one of those things where if you do use it, you lose your timeout. You kinda get so-called ‘punished’ in a way,” he said.
So the Penguins took a risk in challenging a goal that early in the game. But other than Crosby, there might not be a person in the organization that Penguins coach Mike Sullivan trusts more than video coach Andy Saucier, who made the call to challenge it.
“We don’t want to use that challenge frivolously. We’re trying to be calculated about it,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “We’ve sat as a coaching staff at the beginning of the season and we discussed the criteria so we’re all on the same page on when and how we’re going to make those challenges. But ‘Sauce’ does a terrific job for us.”
That he does. Please recall the Penguins’ series against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final. Jonathan Drouin scored early to give the Bolts a 1-0 lead in Game 6, with the Penguins facing elimination. Saucier told the bench to challenge it. After video review, the linesmen indicated that Drouin had picked up his back skate with his front skate inside the attacking zone, just before Victor Hedman skated the puck into the zone.
No goal, early in a game, and the momentum shifted to the Penguins, who built a three-goal lead.
Sullivan was asked if Saucier deserved more credit.
“Well, maybe they’ll have a sandwich named after him, or a sauce or something, I don’t know,” said Sullivan, in the closest he’s come to cracking a joke in the playoffs. “But he does a great job. Andy does a great job for us. He’s smart. I think he has a really good eye for some of the challenges versus the no challenges. Those timeouts are really important.”
So are those gambles. One paid off for the Penguins in Game 1, controversial as it was.
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