Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Bolts, Part Two (Deux)

That's two, as in: "Well, since my April 13th post rang in the playoffs by trumpeting the Tampa Bay Lightning, I had better not ignore their inglorious exit from the postseason a mere nine days later."

And deux, as in: "Frenchie refs, f--- you!"

Not that I'm being ethnocentric or anything. Provence Quebec has produced some of my favorite hockey players and I like the way French names roll off the tongue.

And let me be very, very, very clear about something: Tampa Bay did not lose the opening round series to Montreal because of officiating. The Bolts lost because they simply were not up to the task. If any of my fellow Tampa Bay partisans beg to differ, they will need to beg hard because over the course of four full games and one overtime, there were fewer than four minutes of game time during which the Bolts had a lead.

After the Lightning scored the first goal of the series, they watched the Habs tie them up 19 seconds later.

In Game One, Montreal goalie Carey Price had the worst game I've ever seen him play, yet the Lightning still couldn't win.

Throughout the series the Habs attacked the Lightning zone like a swarm of killer bees, their passes crisp, their speed deadly, their scoring chances legit. Conversely, the Lightning spent about two-thirds of every game looking like they were skating in cement.

The Lightning constantly turned the puck over at the most inopportune of times.

Their lack of quality defensemen (other than Victor Hedman) was painfully obvious as they always seemed to leave their slot exposed (insert double entendre here).

With starting goalie Ben Bishop sidelined by injury, Anders Lindback played as good as can be expected of a backup and gave his team a chance to win. But his teammates did not take advantage of the chance, and by failing to be in the slot to clear out rebounds, they frequently hung him out to dry.

Montreal had nearly twice as many players with playoff experience as Tampa Bay, and it was obvious.

So with all that being said, why is that I'm complaining about the officiating? Because it really was atrocious, and it really did ensure that the Lightning's chances of winning were "zero" instead of "small," and it really, really smacked of the kind of favoritism that can cause palpable harm to a sports league.

If you are not familiar with hockey, just think of the Habs -- that is, the Montreal Canadiens -- as the New York Yankees or Notre Dame Fighting Irish. You know how when the game is tied in the ninth, the Yankees runner is always called safe at home even when the catcher obviously tags him out? You know how with 10 seconds left and Notre Dame leading by four and the opponent snapping the ball on 4th and goal, the opposing running back always breaks the plane yet the refs always claim he didn't? Well, that is the Montreal Canadiens.

It's not as if they haven't earned an exalted place in the hockey world, as franchises go. They have won far more Stanley Cups (24) than any other franchise (Toronto comes in second with 13, the most recent of which was 47 years ago). But still, games and series are supposed to be won. They are not supposed to be bestowed and are not supposed to result from the kind of grease-skidding that tarnishes the accomplishment. And grease-skidding is precisely what happened.

With Game Three tied and the Lightning seizing momentum, the Lightning scored to take the lead. Only to have the goal disallowed for an alleged goaltender interference that no observers (even neutral ones like the announcers on CBC) thought was interference. Given a second breath, Montreal won and took a commanding 3-0 series lead. Otherwise they probably (though not definitely) would have lost and found themselves in a dogfight with the series at 2-1.

Then, with Game Four tied and 2:11 left before overtime, Lightning centerman Cedric Paquette was called for tripping on a tic tac move that was away from, and had no impact on, the play. This gave Montreal a power play for the remainder of regulation, which they converted when Max Pacioretty chipped in the winning goal with 30 seconds left.

To be fair, Pacquette's move was tripping and the call was technically accurate. But it was the kind of call that the refs had been studiously sure not to make all night up until then, in keeping with the well-established playoff etiquette of officials allowing players to decide outcomes by not blowing their whistles unless a penalty actually affects the play at hand and/or is egregious.

It just so happens that the same referee made both of those calls, and his name is, rather conspicuously, Francois St. Laurent.

My grumbling is not that of a bitter and ignorant man from Florida. Ok, maybe I'm a bitter man from Florida right now, but I'm not an ignorant one. I now that many people from north of the 48th parallel share my frustration, and I know that many people from places like Ottawa and Hamilton and Edmonton harbor an intense resentment of the ice-titling favoritism given to Montreal. 

Given the Habs' well-earned reputation for always being on the blessed end of officiating bias, the NHL should seriously consider not allowing any Quebec-born refs to officiate Montreal playoff games. After all, the ridiculous favoritism shown to Michael Jordan damaged the NBA's credibility so severely that it still hasn't recovered it, since everyone knows that league has one set of rules for stars and another set for all the other players.

For now, however, I will retreat from my soap box and focus on the positive, for as disappointing as the Lightning's quick exit was, this team has an abundance of potential and we fans could not ask for any more reasons to be optimistic about the future.

Steven Stamkos is just 24 years old, and proved during this series that he has the mettle to be a leader and champion.

Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are two of the three finalists for the Calder Trophy, aka the NHL Rookie of the Year Award.

In two abbreviated appearances in relief of Lindback, Kristers Gudlevskis played fantastic and increased my previously expressed conviction that he might become one of the NHL's best goaltenders.

Jon Cooper comes off as the level-headed "adult in the room," the kind of person you want coaching your team in clutch times. Think Tony Dungy, on ice instead of gridiron.

And can you say resiliency? This team, despite its youth and inexperience, swatted down one obstacle after another during the regular season. And while they came up short in the postseason, they also never gave up and never stopped grinding.

I have faith that they will take their experiences from this year, and learn from them, and use them as a stepping stone to greater things.

Go Bolts!