The Los Angeles Kings have a very real chance of winning their second Stanley Cup in three years tonight. It’s an amazing feat for a team that was built with purpose and with patience, and they deserve all the credit in the world for it. Most people are giving it to them.
There are some Leafs fans who hold a grudge though, based solely on an incident from 21 years ago, that happens to be my most frequent “Wayback Wednesday” request and one of the most popular mailbag questions since it started (just behind “who will replace Carlyle????”). I’m referring to…
“Do the Leafs win the Stanley Cup if Wayne Gretzky is called for a high stick in Game 6?”
First and foremost, you should have let this go 21 years ago. Secondly, probably not.
Refereeing is Hard
The first scapegoat from the casual fan of a losing team in any close game is to blame the officials. Doesn’t matter what happened, what didn’t happen, or even what sport is being played. The athletes involved have nothing to do with the game, and it all has to do with the intentional nefarious actions of the ones managing it.
But is “bad officiating” a malicious effort, or just human error? Let’s look at hockey. It’s a sport that involves a bunch of players skating around at 20 miles per hour, tending to bunch up in pairs, having multiple different instances of shenanigans occur. To make sure they’re doing everything right, you have two guys who are assigned to focus on the puck’s interaction with the lines painted on the ice, and one or two guys (era/league dependant) chasing the play, looking for infractions. You have to be caught up with the play, and making intentional, focused eye contact on a play to call it.
I mean, you could go on he-said-she-said, but that’s a very slippery slope. There’s a reason that hearsay is low on the evidence scale; it’s biased and you can’t verify it. As such, referees are going to constantly miss calls, or maybe see something incorrectly with a limited view and call it something it isn’t. It’s the nature of the beast. The best referees aren’t the best because they’re perfect; but because they’re less imperfect than the alternative. They’re also better at picking their spots, knowing when to not make “insignificant calls” in favour of continuing the flow of the game.
In this case, the blurry video shows Fraser as the only full referee, and ultimately the only one who can make the call. Leafs fans will be quick to point out to you that he had a clear visibility path to the high stick, but as you comb through the Zapruder-esque footage, Fraser is looking at Sylvain Lefebvre and Tomas Sandstrom shoving each other in front of the net as Gretzky’s slapshot heads towards Felix Potvin. Presumably looking for things that would be typically important, like the puck going into the net and/or interference in the process.
By the time Fraser begins to turn is body and head towards Gilmour, it’s because Jamie Macoun has blocked the shot and it’s heading the other way, and Gilmour is on his way down already. It’s worth remembering that the high stick comes as a follow through of a slapshot and wasn’t an independant play; half a second away from visibility is all you need to have no idea what happened from an eye-witness perspective.
You’re then leaving the biggest call of your entire career to what the linesmen may or may not have seen, and trusting the players screaming at you for a penalty to tell you the right thing. It’s not a position I’d like to be in, even if it was just another penalty in the middle of the regular season. Realistically, I’d be swallowing my whistle too.
If It’s Called Right
So lets say, just for shits and giggles, that Kerry Fraser totally saw it, and was protecting Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings because the NHL thought that “Toronto vs. Montreal for the 100th Stanley Cup while both teams are in unusual for their standard cup droughts” wasn’t the most marketable, money printing final possible. Lets say that he could have called a 4 or 5 minute (ejection for high sticks was still an option back then) penalty on the play. What happens next?
Well, Wayne Gretzky obviously doesn’t score a few seconds later. But does that definitely mean that the Leafs go on to the Stanley Cup Finals and win the Stanley Cup? I doubt it.
The Leafs had, realistically, a less than likely chance on converting on that powerplay. They were 21% on the season (7th) on the PP, while Los Angeles was 78.45% on the PK (18th), but you have to account for the fact that Kelly Hrudey was playing better than usual between the pipes over the course of the series.
Even more importantly, there’s the issue of your best offensive player having to run off and get eight stitches because bleeding everywhere isn’t exactly allowed in the NHL. The Leafs scored 98 powerplay goals in the regular season. Gilmour contributed to 57 of them (45% of his 127 points), and was on the ice for 83 of them. They may not have needed him out there, but he was clearly a huge boost to that unit, and may not have been out there to run it.
All things considered double minor or a major likely gives the Leafs a 25-35% chance of scoring on that penalty; better odds than at even strength, no doubt, but not enough to consider it a sure thing. If you don’t score on that powerplay, you’re back to facing a team that was outshooting you over the course of the game and remained competitive with you throughout the series, along with Gretzky coming out of the box with an extended rest and even more to prove. You lose that Game 6, and you’re probably even more “defeated” going into Game 7 than the team that showed up with a chip on their shoulder and still lost on home ice.
On that note, what about that? The fact that the Leafs had home ice advantage and another chance to win two days later, but still couldn’t get it done tends to be forgotten. Moan all you want about Gretzky scoring in overtime; he still had three more and an assist before the series was actually over.
But let’s keep going. Lets say the Leafs convert and face the Montreal Canadiens. People like to think the Leafs could have won the series, but the reality of the situation is this: it would take a miracle. Hrudey had one of the best series of his life, putting up a 0.915 in a round that he lost in five games. This is significantly above the league’s playoff average of 0.885 in that season. However, it still didn’t hold a candle to the obnoxious 0.929 Patrick Roy posted, which was the same number he had for the entire run. Potvin, on the other hand, finished his playoffs at a 0.903. Whether he could have rose to the occasion is anybody’s guess, but I doubt he keeps up with Roy.
He wouldn’t have to if the Leafs kept up in the shot count, but I don’t know if that happens either. Montreal outshot Los Angeles by 22 over 5 games, an average of 4.4 per. Toronto’s edge over LA, on the other hand, was 7 over 7 games. If you want to say the Leafs score on the mythical Gretzky powerplay, removing his goal, having the puck go in on the first shot because it was that meant to be, and disregarding Game 7 entirely, they would have outshot the Kings by as few as 2 shots over 6 games.
To Toronto’s credit, they outshot the Habs by a single puck in the regular season, but that’s over just two games. My basic point being, I don’t know if the Leafs get enough pucks to the net to bridge the gap between Felix Potvin and Patrick Roy. The other thing that makes this interesting is overtime; Montreal went a record 10-1 over the course of the playoffs and entered the final 7-1. If Toronto wins Game 6 in this Bizzaro-world, they’re 5-1 in sudden death situations going into the finals.
Not a week goes by without somebody asking me for my opinion on something that happened when I was a year and a half old. I understand that people are still frustrated that the closest chance the Leafs had to winning the Stanley Cup in the post-expansion era could have went differently if not for a mistake, but it needs to be seen for what it was; a mistake. Use it as a bookmark for your emotions of the past, but don’t tie it to how you feel about the present.
Besides, the odds weren’t exactly sky high that a penalty call would have been the straw that gave the camel a Stanley Cup. A lot of things would have to go exactly right to win the series, and they’d have to beat a pretty strong team with the greatest goaltender of all time bailing them out to win the next one.
It doesn’t make all that much of a difference in 2014 anyway. If the Leafs snap their cup drought in 1993, we’d still be witnessing the second longest gap between championships in city history today, while rapidly approaching a takeover of the main spot. The focus should be on the issues that the team has had in the immediate past and could have in the future; not on daydreaming about “what if” scenarios that begin with a repairing of badly timed human error.
On that note, I’d really like to see the Kings win tonight. Like I said at the start of this post; they’re just a treat to watch, both on the ice and off. I wonder if Tim Leiweke’s pixie dust forgot to take the trip over here..