Too many men? Stanley Cup Final gets a dose of controversy with Avalanche OT goal

Tampa, Fla. — If it was an illegal line change, it wasn’t the first one a team has gotten away with in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In fact, many will remember that the Tampa Bay Lightning themselves got away with one last year.

But an emotional Jon Cooper, coach of the Lightning, made Wednesday night’s possibly missed call a focal point after it came at the most consequential of moments — in overtime to help the Colorado Avalanche win 3-2 and take a 3-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final — saying his team “still should be playing” rather than digesting a damage loss that seriously affects its hopes of three-peating.

Nazem Kadri dramatically returned from thumb surgery on his accelerated seconds into play, floating a beauty past Andrei Vasilevskiy 12 minutes, 2 OT, at the end 11-second shift that Cooper insinuated the Avalanche should have been whistled for, with too many men on the ice.

The permissible five skaters were on the ice when Kadri scored, but replays show that the Avs capitalized on, at minimum, a generous line change, and perhaps an illegal line change at maximum.

Kadri was on the ice for four seconds and had possession of the puck along the blue line by the time the man he changed for — an idling Nathan MacKinnon — finally got to the bench. It appears on replay that Kadri thought he was changing for Valeri Nichushkin, who ended up staying on the ice and engaged in the play. MacKinnon was still on the ice at the bench along the blue line when Kadri skated into the offensive zone with the puck.

Kadri’s goal put the Avalanche one win from their third Stanley Cup title and first since 2001, with Game 5 in Denver on Friday night.

“I love this league,” Cooper said in a stream-of-consciousness soliloquy that he’d eventually cut short before leaving the podium. “It’s the greatest league in the world. The people that run it are amazing. Everything about it. It’s like a dream come true for me, especially being a Canadian kid, growing up and everything that’s gone on. … You know, I’ve been part of some heartbreaking losses and defeats to the teams that took us out and been with a group that just fights, fights and fights. And they fought their way to a third Stanley Cup Final in a row. And in a cap era … when it’s so damn hard and the rules are put against you because the league wants parity.

“And I love that about the league. And that’s what makes it tougher. And just watch this team, what they’ve gone through and the battling that’s gone on. And we’re all in this together: players, coaches, everybody. But this one is going to sting much more than others, just because it was taking on … it was potentially … I don’t know. It’s hard for me. It’s going to be hard for me to speak. I’m going to have to speak. … You’re going to see what I mean when you see the winning goal. And my heart breaks for the players. Because we probably still should be playing. I’ll be available (Thursday).”

The NHL was aware of the officials controversy after the game and talked to the four on-ice officials. Any of the four are allowed to make the call. Print a statement provided to The Athleticthe league said “a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty is a judgment call.”

“Following the game, Hockey Operations met with the four officials as is their normal protocol,” the league said. “In discussing the winning goal, each of the four officials advised that they did not see a too-many-men-on-the-ice situation on the play. This call is not subject to video review either by Hockey Ops or the on-ice officials.”

According to the NHL Rule Book, players may be changed at any time during play, provided that they are within five feet of the bench and not in the play when the change is made. “At the discretion of the on-ice officials, should a substituting player come onto the ice before his teammate is within the five foot limit of the players’ bench (and therefore clearly cause his team to have too many players), then a bench minor penalty may be assessed. When a player is retiring from the ice surface and is within the five foot limit of his players’ bench, and his substitute is on the ice, then the retiring player shall be considered off the ice. If in the course of making a substitution, either the player entering the game or the player retiring plays the puck or who checks or makes any physical contact with an opposing player while both players involved in the substitution are on the ice, then the infraction of ‘too many men on the ice’ will be called.”

Two former NHL referees contacted by The Athletic who examined the video said that in their opinion this play wasn’t too many men. One former linesman said that while it’s close, loose line changes happen all the time and very few officials would have blown a play like this dead in overtime. He also noted that the Lightning had seven players on the ice, including two players at the bench, like MacKinnon, with the players who came on for them also engaged in the play.

To add to the confusion after the game, the initial game sheet had six Avalanche skaters on the ice for the winning goal, with the sixth being defenseman Erik Johnson. Replays show, however, that it was actually an honest and coincidental mistake because Johnson was never on the ice before or during the winning goal.

Ironically, last postseason, the Lightning’s Ondrej Palat scored a goal in Game 2 of Tampa Bay’s playoff series against the New York Islanders with seven players in the play. The officials missed it, and the goal counted.

While the end of Wednesday’s Game 4 was controversial, the reality is the Avalanche rallied from two one-goal deficits, on goals by MacKinnon and Andrew Cogliano, and were by far the better team in overtime. They outshot Tampa Bay 10-3 in overtime, and that doesn’t include a hit post by Artturi Lehkonen and a hit crossbar by Bowen Byram.

“I’m not quite sure what he’s thinking, why it shouldn’t have counted,” Kadri said when told of Cooper’s comments. “That kind of confuses me a little bit. The puck hit the back of the net, end of story. I’m not sure why he’d say that.”

The reality is, there have been far more egregious too-many-men situations that teams have gotten away with. And it’s not like Kadri scored on a breakaway. He skated into the Lightning zone at one-on-three.

Regardless, the Lightning had better forget about this fast and put the dubious nature of Game 4’s ending behind them, because Cooper was acting like the series ended Wednesday.

If they don’t move past it, the series will end Friday and the Avs will be hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.

(Photo: Geoff Burke / USA Today)

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