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Interpreting the rules: Should the Radek Faksa goal have counted?

The NHL specifically leaves their rules ambiguous, just for these kind of situations

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Midway through the second period Tuesday night, the Colorado Avalanche were trailing the Dallas Stars 2-1 when Stars forward Radek Faksa score a goal while playing with what appeared to be a broken stick. Faksa grabbed a rebound and shoveled the puck past Philipp Grubauer just the shaft of his stick split in two. Avs coach Jared Bednar used his challenge to have the play reviewed and despite what looks like conclusive evidence that it was indeed scored with a broken stick, Faksa’s goal stood and the Avalanche were assessed a double minor for their second failed coach’s challenge.

Instantly fans on social media erupted in anger over the decision. It looked obvious that both the referees on the ice and the off-ice review officials had blown the call. The goal put the Stars up 3-1 and the failed challenge put the team short handed. It was a turning point in what turned into a loss to a division rival.

Avalanche fans aren’t going to want to hear this but by the letter of the law, the NHL made the right decision when they allowed Faksa’s goal to stand - even with the evidence that it was already broken before he made contact with the puck.

For most watching, common sense says the goal shouldn’t have counted. Faksa clearly shot the puck into the Avalanche net with a broken stick. Unfortunately, the NHL rules don’t always allow for common sense.

That sure looks like a goal scored with a broken stick, but alas, that wasn’t the issue.

Here is the NHL’s explanation of the ruling:

Colorado requested a Coach’s Challenge to review if Dallas’ Radek Faksa scored a goal with a broken stick. This play does not fit the applicable standards for a missed game stoppage event in the offensive zone under Rule 38.10. Therefore, Colorado is assessed a 4:00 double-minor penalty for delaying the game for their second unsuccessful Challenge in accordance with Rule 38.8

The key phrase there is “missed game stoppage event”.

Playing the puck with a broken stick is usually a penalty (not always, but I’ll get back to that later) . However, the Avs weren’t challenging that. You’re not allowed to challenge a missed penalty - that would open a huge can of worms that would lead to far too many delays in the game. The team was challenging a “missed stoppage” ie. high stick, offside, hand pass, etc.

A broken stick is not a missed stoppage of play - it’s either a penalty or it’s not. The second the referee told Bednar they couldn’t challenge a missed penalty, the coach should have rescinded his challenge - the Avs were never going to win it. There wasn’t a missed stoppage of play and the NHL ruled accordingly.

So then the issue wasn’t with the review, it was with the on-ice official who didn’t call a penalty despite seeing Faksa clearly shovel the puck in with a broken stick, right?

Well no.

According to Rule 10.3 in the NHL’s official Rule Book, contrary to what most fans think, it’s not an automatic penalty when a player plays the puck with what appears to be a broken stick. Rule 10.3 starts with:

A broken stick is one which, in the opinion of the Referee, is unfit for normal play.

The league leaves subjectivity in the definition of the rule - as they do with most penalties. The referee must deem the stick “unfit” in order to call a penalty. It’s easy enough to conclude that since Faksa was able to score a goal with it, the referee didn’t believe the stick was “unfit for normal play”.

There’s a chance the referees knew the rule and knew that they were not beholden by the letter of the law to call a penalty - either that or the on-ice officials just missed the broken stick.

It might not be a satisfying outcome but technically the league did what they were meant to do by the letter of the law. They followed the rules as written and allowed the goal to stand. Unfortunately for the Avalanche and their fans - much like in last year’s playoffs - the team was a victim of a flawed rule that runs counter to the common sense of anyone watching.