Last night in Nashville, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Predators by an eventual score of 3-2. With the Preds holding a 2-1 lead midway through the 3rd period, a controversial tripping penalty was imposed against Craig Smith for leg to leg contact with Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford inside the goal crease. Hawks captain Jonathan Towes then scored on the ensuing power play to tie the game and set the table for Patrick Kane's game winning goal 3 minutes and 44 seconds later. Let's take a closer look at the tripping penalty.
While the penalty imposed to Craig Smith by referee Jean Hebert was for violation of rule 57-tripping, we should not discount the fact that the contact occurred on the Blackhawks goalkeeper, while positioned deep inside his goal crease.
Referees are instructed to pay particular attention to and penalize accordingly, any form of contact with the goalkeeper, whether inside or outside the goal crease, that in the referee's judgment is intentional or deliberate and as directed in rule 69 - interference on the goalkeeper. Even though the primary intent and language of this rule pertains to decisions that the referee must render on the legal scoring of a goal, rule 69.2 is also very specific that a penalty is to be assessed in all cases in which an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, whether a goal is scored or not. The penalty call in these situations is announced as "Goalie Interference".
You might ask since tripping was the call against Smith, wouldn't it be logical for the referee to discount the primary intent of rule 69 - which is to allow the goalkeeper to move freely within his goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player for the purpose of defending his goal - from a potential foul on the goalie that does not involve a scoring situation? The reality is that protection of the goalkeeper is always a hot-button issue on the referees radar. If there is a benefit of the doubt to be given, it most often goes in the goalkeeper's favor.
Another factor in this call being made was the less than optimum position below the goal line from which the referee set up to view the overall play. From this deficient location, referee Hebert could not draw an angle on Smith's attack on the puck carrier - one that would take the Nashville player through the blue paint. Likewise he could he could not accurately determine either the nature of contact or which player initiated it since his view was obstructed by the net, body and equipment of Crawford. I would hazard to say that with a primary focus on the puck carrier behind the net, the contact between Smith and Crawford caught the referee somewhat by surprise. The optimum position for a referee in this situation is well ahead of the goal line facing toward the attacker, who should be his primary focus. The puck carrier should not be the primary focus of the referee until the attacker moves into a potential foul position.
I provide this preamble not to be overly wordy but instead to offer some insight as to the direction and mindset of the referees when contact is made with the goalkeeper. I now provide you with my take on the play as to why Craig Smith was not in violation of tripping Corey Crawford!
A quick look at the play is provided courtesy of Thomas Willis:
Frame 1: As Artemi Panarin carried the puck around behind Chicago net Smith altered his fore-check path at the goal line with the intent to pick up Panarin on the opposite side. Smith's visual focus was on the puck carrier - Crawford's focus was on Smith and in this frame the goalie had already begun to alter the position of his left leg and pad to move out and into Smith's path- albeit within his goal crease.
Frame 2: Crawford continued to track Smith's path into his crease and rotate his left skate and pad outwardly to diminish the space with which Smith safely could pass without contact.
Frame 3: Note the split vision that the ref would have had from his position as he tracked the puck carrier and fore-checker. Of particular note is the obstructed view of the point and nature of contact that was initiated by Crawford as evidenced by the extended left skate/pad and altered distance from the goal line. (see below.) Smith's focus was still on Panarin but when it became apparent that a collision with the goalie was imminent and unavoidable, the Preds attacker jumped in an effort to avoid/minimize contact.
Frame 4: This screen grab takes us back to the initial setup of the play. It is important to compare Corey Crawford's left skate/pad position 90 degrees and touching the goal line in this shot to the one above where it is obvious the goalie moved outward, rotated his pad and initiated contact with Smith. Crawford's visual focus was entirely on Smith from this point forward and based on the goalkeeper's body movement and nature of fall, one could most reasonably assume that it was done so in an attempt to draw a penalty. Craig Smith was not guilty of tripping!
If the referee was able to clearly see the play in its entirety, and even though the contact took place inside the goal crease, the fact that it was deliberately initiated by Crawford could have resulted in an interference or embellishment penalty to the Chicago goalkeeper (attempt to draw penalty).
With reference to a protection of the goalkeeper mindset that I referred to in my preamble, if the referee felt it necessary to penalize the attacking player for incidental contact inside the goal crease then at very worst Crawford should have received an embellishment penalty and the teams would have played four aside.
While I am an advocate of protecting the goalkeepers, my choice in this situation would be to impose an interference penalty on Crawford based on his subtle but deliberate actions.
Goalies shouldn't expect to be protected at all costs and yet initiate contact when it suits their purpose. They can't have it both ways...