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So who is the most feared playoff team?  Perhaps you opened this story thinking I was going to wax poetic about the Habs and their chances during the post-season and how, since they’ve been transformed into a real team instead of a mishmash of rejects, they could pose legitimate threats to whoever they face.  Well, while that is true, they aren’t the most feared team, not by a long shot.


Is it the Leafs?  Those dreaded old guys in Toronto who have more experience than almost the rest of the league put together into one Geritol lineup will certainly be a factor in the playoffs, as long as the Eagle’s back doesn’t break.  The Avalanche?  Certainly they’ve got a scary offensive club and if they can find reliable defence and goaltending they’ll make a splash.


RedWings, then.  No, the other Geritol crew is probably a Cup favourite as well, but hardly the most feared bunch.  Neither are the Senators, the Flyers, the resurgent Stars or the shocking Sharks.


No, the most feared team in the playoffs will be the Zebras.


The who?


Despite repeated calls from their supervisor during the season, despite continual promises that “this year is going to be different”, and despite all the potential showed in the first weeks of the season, once again the most feared club heading into the playoffs will be the tight-knit boys wearing the stripes with the fancy orange bands around their arms – the refs.


After the game last evening in Boston, it’s become quite evident, to this writer at least, that as usual the referees are going to let the players decide things rather than have a look at the rulebook and call the game the way it’s supposed to be called.  They don’t want to be the deciding factor in games, they say.


What they don’t seem to realize is that, by not calling penalties when they should, they *are* being the deciding factors in games.  They’re allowing players to get away with things they wouldn’t normally be able to do and therefore are losing control of what happens on the ice.


A perfect example is the scrum that happened at the end of the second period.  Saku Koivu clears the puck and takes a hit from their defender just as the siren goes.  Great, that’s good solid hockey.  Then in walks big Hal Gill and gives an extra shove – to the head, no less – of the captain sending him off-kilter and looking to find his balance.  Naturally a scrum ensues, and during the scrum Travis Green, known for being an idiot, jumps Koivu from behind and puts him in what looked most like a WWE choke hold.


And the penalties called from this scrum?  Nada.  Not a one.  Don’t want to affect the outcome of the game.


Unsurprisingly the third degenerates into a series of who-can-do-what-to-whom and get away with it.  For the longest time whistles were pocketed as Kerry Fraser and his team allowed the players to decide the game, even though at times it looked less like hockey and more like a roller derby.


Finally they decided to act, but only when sticks got into faces – one of the few penalties they’ve been told they have to call ‘or else’.  On the same play they called Yanic Perreault for four minutes when he attempted to place Joe Thornton’s teeth in the back of his throat, the failed utterly to call PJ Axelsson for his trip, which looked more like a knee-on-knee attempt, on Richard Zednik.


Moments later they manage to call Thornton for his attempt to run Steve Begin out of the Fleet Centre through the end boards.  Quite frankly, it was a marginal call and smacked more of an even-up move to calm the irate Claude Julien rather than anything else.  Thornton’s ire had been raised, for sure, by Perreault’s attempted decapitation, and he certainly put his muscle into Begin, but the Canadien was in the midst of turning and the hit was more to the back of the shoulder rather than the back as was insinuated by the call.


Gamesmanship came into question as Begin headed off looking like he’d had his arm blown off, and certainly that would have figured in very much to Fraser’s ultimate call on Thornton.  However, who was it but Begin who was back a few minutes later, playing as if nothing untoward had happened, this time raising the ire of the Bruins – and quite rightly so.  You never want to accuse someone who looks like they’ve been injured, and certainly he could have been hurt on the play and wanted to get the shoulder checked out as soon as possible, however wasn’t it Begin, who only a couple of games before had drawn a penalty on a similar play, the ensuing power play bringing us victory?


The point of all of this is not to call into question Begin or anyone else playing on the ice last night.  Perhaps even the league will find enough to sit Thornton for a game or two for his hit, though I’d be somewhat disappointed if that were the call.


The point is to show how the refs could have taken control of the game at the end of the second by calling penalties, instead of ‘letting them play’.  Sure, it’s great to let hockey players decide the game on their own, but isn’t it also great if they do so within the confines of hockey, and not mixed in with football, wrestling, or even baseball?


Every year come playoff time the hits get dirtier, the players hook, clutch, and grab more, and it’s the team that’s prepared to be the grittiest that ends up winning series over the teams with more talent.  While Leaf fans would disagree, that’s the entire philosophy on the way that team has been built.  The words coming out of Toronto indicate they are a playoff hockey club, not necessarily a regular season club. 


What does that mean?  It seems to imply that there’s two different versions of hockey, and in essence, that’s absolutely correct.  There’s the regular season when the crackdown’s take place, then there’s the playoffs where four team members in stripes watch a completely different game because they’re unwilling to call it according to the rule book. 


As a fan, I feel gypped.  Why should some teams get more benefits when they roll into the playoffs because they play a different game to that of the regular season?  Why is a trip no longer a trip, but is now a guy reaching hard for the puck so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and forget the whole thing because we don’t want to decide the game?


They say that playoff hockey is the best hockey of the year.  Okay, if that’s so then why not call the game all year they way the call the playoffs.  Or perhaps it’s just the intensity that’s been ratcheted up a few dozen notches, and regardless of how a game is called, the playoff hockey will still be fantastic. 


Here’s a novel concept, call the game the way it should be called and then let the best team win, not the team that can break the rules and not get caught the best.  If Toronto can win on merit, then I want to see it, but since I don’t think they’re even in the same league as the Senators or the Red Wings or Avalanche, then there’s positively no reason they should even get close to a sniff at the Cup.  Even Tampa looks to be a better club than Toronto, but you can bet that the Leafs, since they play a different game… ”playoff hockey” …will make things much closer than they ever should be.


It’s time for the league to crack down on the refs and to get the game called the way it should be.  It’s time to let the Don Cherry’s of hockey know that breaking the rules is not hockey, it’s some other sport and it’s not welcome in hockey rinks.  I mean, it shouldn’t be that tough, they have these little rule books and everything, it’s not like they have to do something irregular.


Or perhaps it is, after watching the game last night.


A Concerned Fan