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New York Islanders Need to Prepare for Playoff Officiating

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They're only going to call what they're going to call, so might as well be ready.

"Hey Lou, keep it fair, keep it fair..."
"Hey Lou, keep it fair, keep it fair..."
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

In contrast to Sunday night, when Jack Capuano turned Josh Bailey's stick into a demonstration aid for just how blatant Mats Zuccarello's uncalled breakaway hook (and stick throw) on Frans Nielsen was, the New York Islanders coach had little issue with the officiating of Tuesday's intense 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Brooklyn.

Quoth the coach:

"It’s the one thing they have to realize down the stretch. I think the officiating has been great in this league, even those questionable calls, both ways, they’re not getting involved. They are letting the guys play. Special teams, goaltending and health – you talk about it down the stretch. All three have been a little bit of an issue for us, but I like the way we are playing. To win those close games, you’re going to have to want to do it. A lot of them are going to be close down the stretch."

He has a point the players will want to remember down the stretch and into the playoffs.

On Tuesday night the Isles squeaked past Pittsburgh on the strength of special teams, scoring two power play goals and killing off three Penguins power plays, the last while clinging to a one-goal lead in the final minutes with a cold goalie thrust into the action.

But the thing to remember is how the power plays came about: lots of exchanges of violence in front of the net and in the corner -- that's the refs "not getting involved" part" -- interrupted by random moments of "oh but we can't let this go too far." On Tuesday each penalized Islander and Penguin had legitimate beefs over why they were the ones to win the referees' "You're the 10th Caller" contest and be sent to the box.

That's an officiating approach as old as hockey itself, and no matter what the league does to enforce the actual rulebook over the years, this approach always creeps back in to varying degrees as the stakes get higher, such as the playoffs and the late-season games between divisional opponents.

Whether you agree with it or not doesn't matter; the reality is officials will tend toward "let them play" -- or "old time hockey," depending on your lens and subjective memory -- in order to try not to influence games too much. (We'll leave aside that not calling the rulebook poses its own kind of chaotic influence on games, and that this arbitrary Acts of God routine is what can make watching playoffs so infuriating and absolutely baffling to casual fans not well-versed in nebulous rationalizations like "The Code.")

It's precisely that kind of officiating that leads teams to expect refs to at least "keep it even" or do it "both ways" -- i.e. if they are only going to call X percentage of actual infractions, they should at least give each team a similar share of man-advantages.

Islanders fans saw it last year in the first-round playoff series with the Capitals, a series that Caps coach Barry Trotz called one of the most "brutal" he'd ever been a part of in terms of constant physical confrontation. Trotz has a history of coaching teams that push the edge of the rulebook in every way possible, in part due to his own philosophy and in part due to him guiding a low-talent expansion team from scratch during the peak of the NHL's obstruction era.

And it's an approach that frankly makes sense, given how the game is called this time of year. Be prepared to be pushed. Be prepared to push back. Be prepared for the violence to be intermittently regulated to keep a lid on things.

Or, it's as Doug Gilmour recently described the 1980s NHL:

What’s a penalty? Who knows. Don’t even worry about penalties. Treat them like a miracle.

Though the league has cracked down on obstruction and stick fouls, this treatment of other violence that comes from positioning and intimidating one another still carries on. Penalties are like a miracle.

The Islanders better be ready. The East's playoff road runs through Washington.