For the third time this season, the Sabres experienced the disappointment of scoring an NHL goal, only to have it taken away by virtue of a coach’s challenge by the opposition. This time, it was a crucial tying goal against Lindy Ruff’s Dallas Stars on Tuesday night, and the call tilted the game in the Stars favor, as they held on to win 3-1 after scoring an empty net goal. Fans in the arena and elsewhere were incensed, as a smattering of debris was tossed on the ice and Sabres fans everywhere went from the euphoria of seeing Sam Reinhart cap off one of his best professional shifts with a goal to the disappointment of being on the wrong end of yet another overturned goal.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: yes, the Sabres were technically offside on all three plays. The officials themselves ultimately got the call correct, as dictated by the rules. And yes, theoretically these calls should all even out in the long run, as there is a high likelihood that the Sabres will be the beneficiary of this rule in the future. But all of that doesn’t make this rule any better, and it is ultimately beside the point, which is this:
This is a stupid, stupid rule.
In their haste to add replay challenges to the NHL, league officials have made a colossal misstep in creating a situation where fairly scored goals are being called back. The coach’s challenge itself is a fine idea, as there are certainly times when there’s an argument that a goal was scored unfairly. But there’s a big difference between righting the wrong of an illegally scored goal and taking a legitimately scored goal off the board on a technicality.
On all three of the Sabres overturned goals, Buffalo entered the zone offside by mere inches, calls so close that perfectly positioned linesmen, who are ostensibly the best in the world at what they do, missed the call. Play continues, and sometime later, as the Sabres move the puck around the zone, get the better of their opponents, and score what are otherwise completely legit goals. Fans and players celebrate, and life is good. But before they drop the puck to resume play, the challenge happens and the goal is taken off the board.
In other words, the opposing team got beat but got lucky because the NHL gave them a tool with which to get a second chance. Don’t take it from me, ask Stars goalie Antti Niemi (h/t to Joe Yerdon at NHL.com):
"You feel kind of lucky after that, even if it was a fair call, but it felt like a second chance.”
For their part, the Sabres are saying all the right things and not calling the rule stupid (h/t again to Joe):
Tyler Ennis: "My opinion hasn't changed in (five) days. It's in place. Offside has been around a long time, so I've got to get to know that rule a little better."
Ennis had a goal called back on a challenge in Florida on Nov. 12th, and was the guilty party last night by entering the zone a few inches ahead of the puck on Tuesday. But let me read between the lines on his quote for you: he’s being sarcastic. He’s played hockey his whole life, and has no need to “get to know that rule a little better,” but if he says what he really thinks, he probably gets fined.
The bottom line with the coach’s challenge as it relates to offsides calls is that it is essentially fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. In my estimation, the prevailing attitude was that occasionally an offsides call is missed, but the players have a responsibility to play until the whistle, so they’re ultimately responsible if they allow a goal afterwards. The linesmen are professionals, they very rarely make the wrong call, and when they do, it’s typically of the variety that occurred on all three of the calls that went against the Sabres, where the call is so close that being offside granted no material advantage to the offending team.
Also, that idea of it “evening out in the long run” is meaningless, because you know what else evened out in the long run? Missed offsides calls. Only then we didn’t stop the game and take otherwise legit goals off the board. And what of the times when the teams are called offside incorrectly? There is no recourse in that situation, so why should there be one the other way, and only if there’s a goal scored? The truth is that there’s no way to get that call right all the time, so why selectively go back to fix it and pretend that a bunch of hockey didn’t just happen in the meantime?
Time will tell whether the rule stays as is, but as we know with the asinine delay of game penalty, the NHL has been known to stick to its guns in the face off all reason and discretion (you know, except for the old skate in the crease rule). The fans hate it, as evidenced by a couple Sabres backers going rogue and tossing things on the ice last night and the fact that the boos almost caused the roof of the First Niagara Center to blow off. I’d imagine that if such a ruling was made in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, they’d have a full scale riot on their hands.