The Impact Of Refs In The Playoffs

Adam asked a month ago (sorry for the delay, I answer every question people ask, it just sometimes takes a while)

It’s probably hard to quantify, but I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the impact on individual teams’ playoff performance by the stark difference in penalty enforcement from the regular season. I’ve theorized that teams like the Blackhawks, that play a relatively “clean” game are at a disadvantage during the playoffs, given how much goes uncalled, whereas teams like the Ducks, who regularly play a “dirty” game are at an advantage. Further, when teams aren’t used to playing the interference-heavy, no-one-allowed-in-the-crease gameplay of the playoffs, they likely stand a higher chance of being called for penalties, since they aren’t quite as good at masking dirty play. Ultimately, I think the non-reffing in the playoffs really damages the game and puts the players at unnecessarily high risk of injury. And now that the refs have apparently been given the directive to “crack down” on certain penalty enforcement, I’m imagining the playoffs to be even further from the game we see during the regular season. – ADAM

You’re right, it’s extremely tough to quantify. I’m not even sure how to go about it.

For one it’s tough to determine how “dirty” teams are, like when players are beat, every team hooks, slashes, etc to slow the opponent down. It’s not like one team is committing 75 uncalled penalties while the other team commits 5 uncalled penalties. I would imagine the amount of uncalled penalties between both teams would be so close that it almost washes out. The team that got away with slightly more stuff in the game would receive a slight advantage, but that advantage, I would assume, would be extremely low in overall impact on the games outcomes.

It’s also hard because the playoffs in general are a crapshoot. Luck and variance impacts the game so much. A series could come down to a puck that hits the crossbar in overtime and then the other team scores. Outcomes like this is what makes it so hard to quantify the impact of refs swallowing the whistle because the game comes down to so much luck. Number guys and NHL coaches both agree on the huge impact of luck in hockey.

If no one is allowed in the crease in the playoffs, just typing out loud here, then that might benefit players like Kane and Panarin that shoot more from the outside, because they have such lethal shots that they don’t have to be close to the net to score. It might damage physical players that attack the net if they are the ones being attacked. Then again, the physical players might be better at fighting through the slashes and hooks.

But I do agree with your assessment that what the refs do in the playoffs is bad for the game. Every league is getting faster. The NBA and NFL keep moving away from physical and gritty to skilled, open, and free-flowing. The NHL being one of the least progressive sports in the world, should eventually get there. I think the game will be a lot better if players had more space to operate and there were less interference, hooking, slashing, holding, etc.


  • The NHL playoffs should be a more open and free-flowing game to allow skill players to showcase their talent and give the more talented team a better chance of winning
  • Although not calling penalties probably has an impact on the outcome, I would guess that the impact is so low that it should NOT affect or “swing” a series one way or another


  1. I am very glad to see this issue raised. My analysis of the Blackhawks being swept in the first round of the playoffs in April 2017 was based on my belief that the Predators plays significantly less civilized type of hockey. I remember in the first game that a Predator had a scuffle with Patrick Kane, which resulted in a ref giving only a verbal warning to the Predator player. During the replay, I was struck by how disconcerted Kane looked. After that, it seemed to me that the Predators were playing much more physically and succeeding in intimidating the Blackhawks. I firmly believe that had the Predators been called for penalties as if it were the regular season, the results of the series would have been much different.

    The ugliness of how the Predators play culminated in the incredible spectacle during the Stanley Cup finals, of a very aggrieved and frustrated Sidney Crosby pounding P K Subban’s head into the ice repeatedly. That was a truly amazing scene, and something no one should be proud of. But most of the blame must be placed on the coaches and players who play a dirty game, and the NHL for allowing it. I also condemn the role of many TV announcers, such as Mike Milbury, for explicitly justifying such dirty playing as the “tradition” in hockey of defending one’s self and one’s teammates.

    Ever since the Russian Five began bringing the Cup to Detroit, it has been apparent that there are two very different styles of playing hockey. The old, Canadian style is to dump the puck into the offensive zone then go in and fight for it–often literally. The Russian style is based instead on maneuvering and passing, and, for me at least, is a joy to watch. It’s a shame most Americans and Canadians don’t even know who Anatoli Tarasov is, the creator of Russian style hockey. I highly recommend any hockey fan watch the 2014 movie “Red Army.”

    If I wanted to watch a couple of alpha males push each other around and fight, I would watch wrestling. When I tune into an NHL game, I want to watch the marvelous combination of skating skill, puck handling, and strength of a Kane, Crosby, Matthews, and McDavid, not a bunch of men fighting each other like juveniles at a playground brawl.


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