For pure entertainment value, Islanders-Panthers was the best series of the first round, with every game being close and half of them going to overtime. It ended in spectacular fashion, with John Tavares (who had five goals and four assists in six games) tying the game in the last minute of regulation and winning it in double OT. But if not for one pretty blatantly missed penalty, we could have had—should have had—one more game.
On the sequence before Tavares’s tying goal, the Panthers were circling an empty net; a goal would have all but sealed the win and sent things back to Sunrise for Game 7. Vincent Trocheck, in his second game back from a broken foot, found himself with the puck and what looked like space. “I thought we got it there when there was one minute left,” Jaromir Jagr said. “[Trocheck] was close to scoring into an empty net.”
Trochek was tripped up by Matt Martin. No empty-net goal, and no whistle. The Islanders scored on the ensuing rush, and the Panthers will have to wait until the fall for a scoring chance as good.
So here’s the part where we argue about the call, and it was a big one—a tripping penalty there probably hands the Panthers the game as surely as a goal would have. Sporting News goes with hyperbole, calling it “the worst non-call of the Stanley Cup playoffs.” And it’s hard to argue with that. Puck Daddy opts for all-caps and bold: “Did you honestly think any tripping call was going to be whistled with the goalie pulled in a Game 6?” It’s hard to argue with that too! Hockey is complicated.
The argument here is the world as it should be vs. the world as it is. By the rulebook and any reasonable standard of officiating, that was an obvious tripping penalty. By the historical precedent set by, you know, every playoff game ever, you have to hold someone down and force-feed them their own stick to earn a whistle in a moment where a whistle will decide a game.
The Panthers and their fans are entirely justified in feeling like they got screwed out of a Game 7. Anyone else is entirely justified in feeling like NHL playoff officiating inconsistency is, over the long run, actually pretty consistent. Panthers coach Gerard Gallant was phlegmatic, but obviously wanted a call.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t, so what do you do?,” Gallant said when asked. “Obviously, you know, if they thought [the Islanders] would have scored on the other end they would have called it. It’s a tough call, it’s a fast game. It wasn’t much but the game would have been over. It’s tough to swallow.”
The salve to the uninvolved fan’s sense of justice is that the better team did win this series. Which is obviously no consolation to Panthers fans. But Florida’s got some good young players, and figure to be back in the postseason for a while to come. So it’s a fine lesson to learn now: sometimes the playoffs will fuck you for no good reason.