Rules are meant to be broken. That’s the saying, isn’t it? Where there’s a boundary, it must be tested in order to push the limits of the sport you’re playing. That was hockey innovator Roger Neilson’s ideology when he was a professional coach. From 1977 to 2002, Neilson was a menace to NHL officials everywhere. He was well-known for conducting serious tomfoolery on the ice.
For a great breakdown of the types of shenanigans Neilson pulled as a head coach, you can check out this video by SB Nation’s Secret Base.
For those of you who don’t want to watch the video, I’ll elaborate. At one point, Neilson discovered that a team could not have fewer than three men on the ice regardless of how many penalties the team committed. Therefore, late in games, when Neilson’s team was holding a lead, he would simply keep putting too many men on the ice. The game would stop as soon as Neilson’s team touched the puck and little by little, the time remaining would whittle down until Neilson’s team walked away with the victory. When opposing teams were awarded penalty shots, Neilson would substitute his goalie for a defenseman who would simply charge the opposing player as soon as the penalty shot began and steal the puck.
Obviously, those loopholes were patched up by the NHL and those types of rule-bending actions are no longer permitted. Every once in a while though, an old Neilson-ism will rear its head in the NHL, as was the case in last night’s Lightning-Capitals game.
Down 4-3 and with time running out, the Lightning pulled netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy for an extra skater. Not a good situation to be in. Even worse, the Capitals were on a power play after Vasilevskiy tripped the Capitals’ Tom Wilson with 1:52 left in the game. The Lightning were playing 5-on-5 without a goalie. They were on their last leg and every player on that Lightning bench was looking for any edge they could get to tie the game up and send the contest to overtime. As the Lightning executed a line change, 2019 Hart Trophy and Art Ross winner Nikita Kucherov noticed that one of his teammates had left his glove on the ice. Kucherov remembered that his team’s net was empty and thought: “Hey, why not put that glove in front of the net. We don’t have anybody blocking it. Might as well throw something in the way.”
Kucherov is no stranger to creativity in hockey games. He’s well-regarded as one of the most creative players in the league, a wizard with the puck on his tape and a mastermind of the mental aspects of hockey. That quick-thinking and innovation is best evidenced by his famous “no shot” goals he’s routinely put on display during breakaways, penalty shots, and shootouts. His first “no shot” goal came in a shootout on March 4, 2017 against the Buffalo Sabres. Kucherov won the Lightning the game by totally deking Sabres’ netminder Robin Lehner. Since then, Kucherov’s “no shot” shot has made appearances during multiple games as well as All-Star Weekend. He’s even got former Capitals’ goalie Braden Holtby twice with the same move during his career.
Back to the moment from last night’s game though. Clearly, it was a stroke of genius from Kucherov! Only problem, it had been done before, by guess who? Mr. Roger Neilson!
Back in the day, the mad genius Neilson had the brilliant idea to have his goaltender leave his stick behind across the length of the goal when coming off the ice for an extra attacker. The thought behind this action is probably what you’d imagine it to be: if a puck lazily floats toward the goal, the stick will stop the puck from entering, deflect the puck away, and keep the team in the game.
The NHL didn’t take too kindly to this obvious breach of the game’s integrity so they added a snippet to Section 9 of the NHL rulebook. Rule 67.5 states “When a goalkeeper, prior to proceeding to his players’ bench to be replaced by an extra attacker, intentionally leaves his stick or other piece of equipment, piles snow or other obstacles at or near his net that, in the opinion of the Referee, would tend to prevent the puck from entering the net, a goal shall be awarded.” In all fairness, the rule never states that a non-goalie can’t leave equipment in front of the net, so maybe Kucherov was onto something.
Unfortunately for us, we never got to see the officials’ interpretation of this rule because the Lightning rushed into the offensive zone and forced a stoppage of play just moments later. Furthermore, it’s likely that the glove was removed from the crease immediately after Kucherov placed it there. We can see in the video that the referee starts skating in the direction of the glove after Kucherov takes off toward the Washington zone. We never see whether or not it was picked up, but we can assume the referee simply picked it up and set it outside of the playing area.
Even though we didn’t get to see the rule play out, it was fun to see Kucherov try to pull a fast one on the officials. You just know that Neilson was looking down and smiling when Kucherov did that. Neilson is in the hockey Hall of Fame for a reason. He was a “builder,” a true innovator of the game. Without him, the NHL we know today would look very different, and who knows, maybe the referee would’ve left the glove in the crease last night. Perhaps a puck would have come across that glove later in the game and ricocheted away from the net. That would’ve sent Capitals’ fans into a frenzy. Thanks to Neilson, we’ll never have to endure that.