That iconic NHL image: A ref explaining an offside call spotted only on video review.
Photo: Josie Lepe (AP)

Pretend you don’t know anything about hockey. Take a look at this frozen moment of action. Where is the puck? Where is the play happening, and where is it not? Who is involved in the action, and who still has the potential to affect it? Who is violating the rules? More importantly, who is violating the rules and influencing the game to such an extent that a goal four seconds later should be waved off?

If you said Colorado No. 92, Gabriel Landeskog, up in the top right of the image leaving the ice—congratulations! You are the NHL Rulebook, and you are right. But maybe you shouldn’t be.

Welcome to another edition of NHL Ruletalk, where instead of thinking back fondly on a close-fought series between the Sharks and Avalanche, or looking ahead to the Western Conference final, or even dissecting a tight Game 7, we spend our time getting cranky over the rulebook and and yet another goddamned offside review. (Hockey Fever: catch it!...and then wait for the video review to see if a guy’s skate was an eighth of an inch above the blue line.) The Sharks won 3-2, and maybe they’d have won anyway if Colin Wilson’s second-period game-tying goal had been allowed to stand. But here we are again.

San Jose successfully challenged the play as offside. Landeskog was in the zone when the Sharks briefly brought the puck back out, and he skated to the bench to come off. But he was still at the door—on the wrong side of the blue line— when the Avalanche punched the puck back in. That’s offside.

“It’s a tough call to make, so hopefully they got it right,” said Landeskog. “Listen, there were 10 things I could’ve done differently on that play. Wish I got off the ice a lot quicker, and I should’ve jumped the boards. If I could’ve done it again…”

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The replay officials did indeed get it right, by the letter of the law. But by the spirit of the law, the on-ice officials got it right too, by not calling anything (or perhaps by missing it completely, which leads to almost the exact same point). The point of the offside rule is to prevent attacking teams from having an unfair advantage—having a player or players in the offensive zone before the puck gets there. Landeskog, coming off the ice, provided the Avs no advantage.

Let’s take a look at the rulebook, because there’s nothing more exciting in hockey than a hushed sports bar or a morning-after water cooler gathering discussing subclauses on page 126. Rule 83 deals with offside, and 83.3 specifically with delayed offside, which is what this was at the moment the puck came out of the zone but Landeskog was still inside it. Eventually, 83.3 gets to this exact situation.

If, during a delayed off-side, an attacking player in the attacking zone elects to proceed to his players’ bench (which extends into the attacking zone) to be replaced by a teammate, he shall be considered to have cleared the zone provided he is completely off the ice and his replacement comes onto the ice in the neutral zone. If his replacement comes onto the ice in the attacking zone, if the delayed off-side is still in effect, he too must clear the attacking zone.

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(I don’t know what this means, if anything, but the NHL’s official explanation of the ruling, which they issue after every video review, doesn’t even get this specific. It only cites the most basic definition of offside, and leaves it to you to find the part that actually applied to this play.)

So, to be onside, Landeskog would have had to have been fully back on the bench, not merely stepping off. That’s fundamentally wrong, I think—enforcing this rule as written is arbitrary, when the same basic concept is interpreted much more liberally dozens of times a game.

On just about every line change, fresh skaters hop over the boards just as the skaters they’re replacing glide up to the bench, but before they’re completely off the ice. That’s fine. That’s what the NHL in 2019 looks like. Everyone has agreed that as long as a skater is out of the play, he’s off, for all intents and purposes. To put it another way: By the letter of the law, the Avalanche could have been penalized for too many men on the ice here, because Wilson was out before Landeskog was off. But the officials never, not in a million years, would have called that penalty, and if they had, it would bring an outrage to end all outrages. But what’s the difference between the two? Why treat Landeskog as “on the ice” in last night’s ruling but not in the case of a normal line change?

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The normal, relaxed definition of who’s on the ice and who’s not is the spiritually and practically correct one, because of the even more fundamental qualm with last night’s ruling: Landeskog was not involved in the play. He did not touch the puck, nor did he attempt to. He did not draw a defender away from the action. He had absolutely nothing to do with the subsequent goal that wasn’t, and he did not give the Avalanche an advantage. A common-sense reading of the rulebook leaves little doubt that this rule should be rewritten, or at least reinterpreted. It’d be more logical for players, and better for fans—both old, who must be so tired of this, and new, who might well be convinced they will never, ever understand the offside rule.

And now I’ve written 850 words about a playoff offside review, and, trust me, I am very annoyed by that fact.