James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

A brutal night for NHL goalie interference calls

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At this point, you almost expect the NHL’s Situation Room Blog to devolve into a Tumblr of crying GIFs.

As much as the league focuses on the minutia of offside goal reviews, the confusion around what does and does not constitute goalie interference is the elephant in the room. On Thursday, that elephant trampled all over the furniture.

Truly, this has become the NHL’s answer to the NFL’s high-profile headaches about what counts as a catch. Such situations seem to have the same potential to bewilder and ruin the fun.

You can see an especially bad example in the video above this post’s headline. Erik Haula‘s 2-1 goal for the Vegas Golden Knights counted even though James Neal broke his stick bumping Connor Hellebuyck in the head. That contact wasn’t as malicious as it sounded … but should that goal really count?

Blake Wheeler strongly disagreed with the decision, even getting profane. Here’s a censored version:

“Well, now it’s bad,” Wheeler said. “It was bad before but come on, (he) [expletive] breaks a stick over his head. That’s not a goal.”

You can see Wheeler’s full take, with the salty (also censored) part coming around the 1:15 mark:

Not surprisingly, Hellebuyck agreed that it was the wrong call.

Now, it’s one thing for players on the wrong end of the review process to comment, but it’s far from just Wheeler and Hellebuyck griping about that tally. Consider what highly respected St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong had to say about what is, frankly, a huge mess:

Yikes. The comment was likely prompted by this Bruins goal:

… But it doesn’t really invalidate such an opinion, right?

Hockey fans can probably go way, way back to other times when goalie interference seemed to inspire some very “mystical” interpretations, and there are plenty of notorious “goal or no goal?” moments. You can make a Buffalo Sabres fans insta-cringe if you merely utter the phrase “foot in the crease.” Tomas Holmstrom’s entire career felt like a field experiment for goalie interference calls.

Still, the angst seems to be rising, with even NHL executives admitting that the process is one big  ¯_(ツ)_/¯. Scroll through some of the decisions from Thursday, and it all seems subjective, at best.

At least it opens the door for jokes?

Naturally, the league would likely respond with a reasonable point: yes, it’s confusing, but fans won’t be happy if bad goals count, either.

After that Golden Knights win against the Jets, Paul Maurice provided some interesting insight on a memo that went out around the league about goalie interference.

“The memo came down they were going to let more go. We can’t have people swinging at our goalie’s heads. You can’t allow that to creep into the game,” Maurice said. “The whole thing started to protect the goaltenders. I would have thought that one, yeah, OK bumping a goalie might be one thing, rubbing him a little bit, pushing him a little bit, but if you hit him in the head with your stick and break it, we probably don’t want that in our game.”

Maybe a night like this will inspire the NHL to change course on, allegedly, letting more go?

It’s not an easy situation to deal with, but more and more, it seems like the league needs to find a way to arrive at some satisfying answers.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Vegas Golden Knights break expansion wins record with 32 games left

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It only makes sense that the Vegas Golden Knights set a new wins record for an expansion team the way they’ve piled up a lot of their wins: in a heart-stoppingly excited fashion.

Heck, their goalie Marc-Andre Fleury even might have been a little banged-up during a wild overtime period against the Winnipeg Jets.

After trading extremely close calls in OT, David Perron collected the game-winner as Vegas won 3-2. The Golden Knights are now a ridiculous 34-12-4 in their first season. Hot take: they’ll probably have more than a one-win edge on the 1993-94 Ducks by the time 2017-18 is over.

The beautiful thing for the Golden Knights is that you can’t chalk it up to a “Vegas hangover” alone, especially as the season’s gone along.

No doubt, they’re deadly in that format, going 19-3-2 at home. Still, they’ve now gone on a 9-2-1 run in their last 12 road games, and to little surprise, they’re approaching an expansion record for road dominance, too.

It’s probably heartening that Erik Haula‘s goal wasn’t the decisive one, as it’s the latest example of the NHL being totally confounded by what is and what is not goalie interference. James Neal pretty much clobbered Connor Hellebuyck on this one:

(More on goalie interference soon.)

You could probably argue that it makes extra sense that the Golden Knights beat the Jets, too. It’s the latest argument that the Golden Knights aren’t just strong “for an expansion team,” even if it’s irresistible to note it as they break record after record.

With the way tonight’s games are shaking out, it looks like Vegas will end Thursday clearly on top of the NHL’s standings, without any need for tiebreakers.

It makes you wonder if this incredible run will even stop before 2018-19 rolls around.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Full strength: Predators punish Kings

Fans of opposing teams might have been getting tired of the refrain: “Wait until the Nashville Predators get to full strength.”

It’s a response that could have come when Ryan Ellis was out, and then for January, when Filip Forsberg was not in the lineup.

Such comments felt more reasonable on Thursday, as the most-loaded-yet version of the Nashville Predators absolutely steamrolled the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 in Forsberg’s return to the lineup.

Nashville built a 3-0 lead through the first period, even with Ryan Johansen‘s would-be opening goal being disallowed. The Kings were unable to break through against Pekka Rinne, allowing the Predators to add an additional goal in each of the second and third periods for an impressive win.

Forsberg, Johansen & Co. treated a rowdy “Smashville” crowd to quite a performance. Forsberg scored a goal and an assist while Johansen piled up three helpers, rendering that disallowed goal a distant memory.

Rinne only needed to make 19 saves for his fifth shutout and 25th win of 2017-18. He’s quietly been one of the main reasons Nashville’s been able to weather injuries to the likes of Ellis and Forsberg, while backup Juuse Saros gives this team a formidable duo in net.

Such a victory puts the Predators in a strong position to win the Central Division. While their 67 standings points trail the Central-leading Jets’ 69, Nashville has played three fewer games than Winnipeg.

The Kings are in a rugged battle for positioning in the Western Conference’s bubble races, so it’s not as though there was little on the line for L.A. Maybe it was as simple as a fearsome team flexing its muscles in this one?

A lot of things can change in the two months remaining in the regular season, but as of today, the Predators look like they’ll be a force in the West once again.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Key returns: Quick for Kings, Forsberg for Predators

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Tonight’s Los Angeles Kings – Nashville Predators game (watch live on NBCSN) sees two teams closer to full-strength than they’ve been in a while.

Granted, for the Kings, it hasn’t been much of a wait. While Jonathan Quick was activated from IR on Thursday, it might have been partially a function of getting him a breather during the All-Star break as much as anything else.

That said, Quick had been struggling with just one win in his last seven games. He’s off to a bumpy start, with one goal allowed (Craig Smith) after a Ryan Johansen goal was disallowed because of a goalie interference call.

Filip Forsberg made his presence felt on that would-be Johansen goal, creating a turnover and getting the puck to Johansen. The goal didn’t count because Viktor Arvidsson bumped Drew Doughty into Quick.

Moments after this post was published, Forsberg scored early on in the Predators’ 5-on-3 power play.

One month missed

The Predators deserve credit for playing well without Forsberg, with some other key players going in and out of the lineup as well. Nashville was 7-2-2 in his absence.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that they’re a more dangerous team with Forsberg than without, what with the Swedish winger being pretty close to a point-per game guy (34 points in 37 contests coming into Thursday’s action).

Looking at January stats specifically, it’s easiest to see the impact on Johansen, who only managed four assists in 10 games while suffering a -5 rating.

According to Left Wing Lock, the most common Predators trio was Johansen, Arvidsson, and Pontus Aberg. Aberg didn’t really do much with that opportunity, and he went from top-line duty to a healthy scratch with Forsberg back.

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Particularly in the case of the Predators, Thursday serves as a teaser for what this team is truly capable of, as Ryan Ellis has been revving things up with Forsberg out of the mix.

Granted, there’s still the matter of integrating Mike Fisher back into the lineup, but either way, this could be a force to be reckoned with.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Fight: Zajac(!) takes it to Gudas after hit enrages Devils

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According to Hockey Fights, Travis Zajac only has six NHL fights despite being a regular since 2006-07. You wouldn’t know that from the way he went after Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas on Thursday.

Gudas angered the New Jersey Devils after a strange hit where he left his feet and made contact with forward Kyle Palmieri, who might be OK.

Seriously, it was a little odd, but dirty or not, New Jersey wasn’t happy:

Zajac proved as much, going after Gudas with shocking ferocity, if not effectiveness (the punches might not have always reached their mark, but made an impact in showing he’d stick up for teammates).

Wow.

This situation has “unexpected” written all over it. Not only was this a wow moment from Zajac, it actually interrupted a remarkably uneventful stretch for Gudas.

The frequently suspended defenseman went without a single penalty since returning to action from a 10-game suspension on Dec. 12. Gudas wasn’t even guilty of an obstruction-type infraction for a stretch of 21 games. Yes, that Radko Gudas.

Strange days indeed.

The Devils ended up winning the game 4-3, and were not happy about the hit afterward:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.