Politeness is often a desirable trait we look for in people. The ability to be friendly and avoid confrontation or damaging speech is often lauded as a mature, positive quality for a person to possess.
In the case of Mike Johnston, politeness is a vice, not a virtue. Johnston’s refusal to criticize the referees after the Penguins’ Game 3 loss to the Rangers was a disservice to his team, which was marginally outplayed by New York, and clearly hamstrung by the officiating.
Before you dismiss this statement as a homer claim by a columnist who picked the Penguins to spring an upset in seven games, think about what you’ve seen.
The officials policed the early stages of Game 1 with vigor, calling a boatload of penalties on the Penguins, most of which were richly deserved, and thought to be part of an effort on their part to intimidate the Rangers. When the Penguins were trying to get back in the game later on, they were subject to the typical clutch-and-grab garbage that has largely ruined the NHL game. Nothing was called.
If something is a penalty in the first period, it should be the same in the third.
In total, the series has seen nearly twice as many penalties called on the Penguins than on the Rangers. That’s fine, so long as there is obvious evidence that the Penguins are playing a more physical, borderline style. There isn’t, though. The Rangers are doing just as much clutching and grabbing, often at crucial times of the game. During Game 3, Sidney Crosby’s stick was held for several seconds on what turned out to be a Patric Hornqvist goal.
Seeing two teams apparently held to different standards, and seeing the criteria for what constitutes a penalty change as a game wears on should disgust fans of the sport.
Johnston needs to step up to the plate and make his case for his team. If he really thinks that the “battles” are enjoyable, something he said after Game 3, then he’s off his rocker. The teams aren’t battling, they’re doing blatantly illegal things on the ice while the officials look the other way. Johnston’s team is the one getting punished more often for it, to boot.
It’s hard to imagine Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or any other Penguins player being happy with their coach claiming that blatant obstruction is really just “good battling.”
No one is asking for perfection when it comes to the way the game is called, but some measure of consistency would be nice. There have been plenty of missed or botched calls on the Rangers, as well, none more egregious than a phantom tripping penalty drawn by Taylor Chorney in Game 2. Chorney simply fell down, and the Ranger unfortunate enough to be in close proximity was sent off.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has openly campaigned for his team, suggesting that the Penguins are being too rough with goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who flopped so obviously in Game 3 that it brought to mind thoughts of former NBA center Vlade Divac, a large man often toppled by a light breeze. Johnston needs to emulate Vigneault, even if he doesn’t believe it is necessary.
Vigneault is making sure that the officials know he is unhappy, and perhaps it is working. He’s also convincing his guys that he has their backs, which can’t hurt from a morale standpoint. Johnston needs to level that particular playing field.
The Penguins are by no means out of this series. They’ve taken some good punches from the Rangers and come right back, and this series could easily be 2-1 the other way. They have competed hard for three games, and look to be a more than worthy challenger. Johnston has actually done well, too, when it comes to making tactical adjustments.
All he has to do now is send a message to the referees that, like his team, he won’t stop fighting until the bitter end. His charges are owed that much, and then some.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of “The Starkey & Mueller Show” from 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 The Fan.
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