Maple Leafs Kill Five-Minute Penalty For Seven Minutes Because Of An Obscure Rule

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Maple Leafs defenseman Roman Polak received a five-minute major and game misconduct for boarding in Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jackets. Since Polak was ejected, Toronto would usually have another player serve the penalty in his stead. Head coach Mike Babcock decided to gamble, but it didn’t work out for him.

There’s a rarely exercised NHL rule which states that a team doesn’t have to immediately put a player in the box for a penalty, as long as someone’s in there before the penalty ends. Sean McIndoe eloquently explained how it worked for Grantland back in 2015:

But while teams do indeed have to put a player in the box, they don’t actually have to do it right away. Rule 20.3 makes it clear that a team “does not have to place a substitute player on the penalty bench immediately”; it’s completely legal to keep the entire bench intact by just leaving the box empty when the penalty starts, and leave it that way as long as desired. During any stoppage in play before the penalty ends, the team can send somebody over to serve whatever’s left of the penalty.

Of course, there’s a slight flaw in that sort of plan, and it’s the reason teams almost never try this particular move: If there isn’t a stoppage, and the power play ends before you can get somebody into the box, you’re pretty much screwed. With nobody to come out of the box, the power play would continue indefinitely, or at least until the next whistle. You can’t get to even strength by having a guy hop over the boards from the bench — he has to come from the penalty box.


That last sentence is important: Regardless of how a team handles its penalty, it can only get back to even strength from a player who was in the box. Babcock never put a man in the sin bin, because there was no stoppage in which to do so, and the Blue Jackets had the advantage for a total of 6:54. Brian Boyle had to flick the puck into the Columbus bench to trigger a whistle. The coach admitted his mistake after the game:

“We laughed on the bench, but it was all my fault,” said Babcock. “In hindsight, if that had cost you, it’d be terrible. It will never happen in my lifetime again. I will never wait to put a guy in.”


Babcock was saved from embarrassment, because Columbus didn’t score in that nearly seven-minute power play. Toronto won, 5-2.