There have been many burning hot takes in the last week about Gary Bettman and the NHL wanting Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins to walk away with their second consecutive Stanley Cup. While I can't recall anything inexcusably dreadful from the referees in the Game 7 thriller between the Penguins and Ottawa Senators, it always seemed unlikely the Sens would wind up winning that game. Had they, it would have resulted in a Stanley Cup between those Senators and the Nashville Predators. Any true hockey fan would have loved that series, regardless of who you cheer for. Not that I care about their feelings, but for the fair-weather hockey fan, a Cup Final between Ottawa and Nashville would have lacked sex appeal to the common sports fan, and ratings would be sharply worse than what they are now. But, as I mentioned before, nothing sticks out like a sore thumb. The Senators had their opportunities to win, Matt Murray made the saves he needed to, and Chris Kunitz scored a good goal that can't be argued.
And then Game 1 in the Stanley Cup Final occurred. More specifically, the first half of the first period happened. P.K Subban scored what looked to be a good goal. The higher authorities in Toronto then came in and said "GUESS WHAT LOL that's not a goal!" Considering you need hard, conclusive evidence to overturn a call on the ice, I am very confused as to where in the sequence there was definitive proof the play was offsides. Had the same thing happened to the Penguins, on their home ice, I'm not convinced the zebras would have made the same decision. After all, Penguins fans trashed their home ice in their Game 7 loss because they couldn't tell at one point a puck went over the goal they were trying to score in, as opposed to under it. We'll never know that much.
Shortly after the offsides incident, Pittsburgh got a two minute 5 on 3 power play. Which was deserved! The Predators committed two clear-cut penalties that had every reason to be called. There's no denying that. During that power play, however, Sidney Crosby shoved a Predator off of him mere seconds before Evgeni Malkin made it 1-0. When it happened, I thought Crosby was just trying to protect himself since it looked like the player in white was coming right at him. After further review, I no longer feel that way. I join most people who believe that should have been called a penalty, which would have stopped the opening goal (feels wrong to say it was the opening goal because, uh, Subban scored, but whatever).
Now, did the referees swallow their whistles in that sequence because it was the player who wears the number 87? There's a good chance! Crosby could pull out a knife and stab Pekka Rinne in the throat during Game 3, and there's a decent chance no penalty would be called, all because Sidney Crosby is, IN CASE YOU'VE NEVER HEARD THIS BEFORE, the best player currently in hockey. Pittsburgh took a 2-0 lead in the game, ended up winning by a margin of two goals, and we are where we are with the Penguins being a couple wins away from their second consecutive championship.
I'd be doing a disservice to my legion of readers if I did not address the devil's advocate, and insinuate the NHL is not fixed, because that is the common logic at the moment. If we were to go through the list of teams and attempt to figure out who the NHL is in the bag for, we could say:
- Pittsburgh, because Crosby
- The Islanders and Rangers, because New York
- Montreal, Boston, Detroit, Toronto, the aforementioned Rangers, and ESPECIALLY Chicago, because #originalsix
- (In like 2-3 years, Edmonton, because, McDavid)
From this list, the Isles and Flyers missed the playoffs because they're below average, the Red Wings are garbage, while the other teams got ousted in the playoffs by other teams who are better than them. Now, to argue why the NHL would not be biassed, take these same Predators and jump back a month and half to the series against the Blackhawks. The NHL would have had every reason to intervene and make sure the Blackhawks beat the Predators. The Blackhawks have immense star power, a bandwagon following that has a wait list, and in April with the exception of Subban, the Predators did not have that. Yet, Nashville won the series in four games, because they outplayed Chicago, and if there was a bias from the higher powers, you never would have been able to tell.
The NHL may have a vested interest in making sure the Penguins win, though there's no way to definitively prove that. If shenanigans take place in the rest of the series that seem fishy, then by golly it's fixed and we'll have to live with it. As most sports fans with a decent sense of vision would concur, the NBA has some bias and it sucks to be a fan of any team that doesn't have a superstar in the playoffs, because the refs will make sure a team like the Nuggets always lose to a team like the Spurs or Lakers (at least back in the day when the Nuggets made the playoffs). It's hard to overcome in basketball, but in hockey, it is possible to overcome. The Penguins have lost series in the postseason before. Ottawa may not have beat them last week, but they did in 2007. Detroit beat them in the Final, Montreal got them in 7 in 2010, Tampa won in the 1st round in 2011, they lost to their good friends in Philly the next year, and since then Boston and the Rangers have taken series wins against them. And you know what, Nashville can still win this series.
Pekka Rinne has not played great these last two games. No one denies this. He could have made saves that would make this series closer than what it currently is. The Predators wouldn't be in this spot if he did. Pittsburgh has an insanely good team as well, that no one denies. Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel as your core with two guys who have won Stanley Cups as your goaltenders makes me extremely envious. They didn't get to where they are from luck and the golden hand of Gary Bettman placing them in this position. They've earned their success, even if it is annoying and no longer tolerable. Like I said earlier, there's no way to prove there's a fix in Pittsburgh's favor. And if the NHL was completely fixed, you'd be watching a series that involves the Blackhawks instead of the Predators. If the Predators want to avoid questions after the remaining games about why they lost, and if they feel like the game was unfairly officiated, there's a very simple fix: score more goals than your opponent. They've done it in three previous series, and even if the odds are stacked against them down 2-0, there's no reason they can't come back and win the Stanley Cup, whether the NHL likes it or not.