- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

PITTSBURGH

Per NHL playoff guidelines, a general manager is required to be available for interviews if his team does not practice between games.

The Washington Capitals took Thursday off, which meant George McPhee was in a second-floor meeting room at the team’s downtown hotel with coach Bruce Boudreau and seven players.

It took one question for McPhee to address his most alarming issue with Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to Pittsburgh - the officiating.

Power plays in Game 3: Penguins 7, Caps 2.

Power plays in the series: Penguins 17, Caps 9.

McPhee and Boudreau railed about Wednesday’s calls in general and the treatment of goalie Simeon Varlamov in particular.

“I was disappointed [Wednesday] night because we didn’t deserve some of those penalties and you can’t tell me they didn’t deserve more than two,” McPhee said. “It hasn’t been our style to whine about this, but at some point, you have to say something.”

It usually falls to Boudreau to analyze the officiating publicly, leaving McPhee to cajole explanations from the league. But he chose a wider audience.

“The [series] supervisor is as good as they come - Terry Gregson is terrific,” McPhee said. “But if the referees aren’t going to listen to him, what good is he?”

Game 3 was officiated curiously because the minor stick infractions were called and both teams were whistled for obstruction penalties. Even though they trailed for only 3:09, the Caps were constantly chasing the game because of their parade to the box.

If the Penguins weren’t 3-for-17 on the power play, they might be the team up 2-1 entering Friday’s Game 4.

Even if the Caps continue to kill penalties, the trickle-down effect could be costly.

Penalties limit the ice time of Alex Ovechkin and Sergei Fedorov, who don’t play in five-on-four situations. It increases the ice time of third- and fourth-line centers David Steckel and Boyd Gordon, who combined to play more than 13 minutes short-handed, which prevented Boudreau from matching those units against Pittsburgh’s scoring lines.

Of the seven penalties called against the Caps, there’s no argument on four - delay-of-game calls on Milan Jurcina (knocking the goal off its moorings) and Brian Pothier (shooting the puck out of play from his own zone) and interference calls on Michael Nylander (setting a pick) and Ovechkin (pulling down Sidney Crosby).

Among the other three penalties, Mike Green’s slash on Jordan Staal was iffy, but what had McPhee and Boudreau upset was the noncall on Evgeni Malkin for running over Varlamov and the subsequent slashing call on the goalie.

Varlamov has been treated like a pinata this postseason (Sean Avery’s punch, Chris Kunitz’s cross-check, Malkin’s barrel-roll), and the Caps are fed up that the league hasn’t been more diligent.

“Obviously, the message isn’t getting through,” McPhee said. “They’re supposed to protect this goaltender. … [Varlamov] gives [Malkin] the flick of the stick, and we get a penalty. It’s not right. Those aren’t slashes; those aren’t things you call in the playoffs. … We’ve asked them to protect our goaltender and they’re not, so he reacts.”

Said Boudreau: “If they want to make calls like that, they certainly could have called four or five more on them.”

A problem the NHL should address is the inconsistency in the officiating. The referees chosen to work the playoffs are shuttling all over the country, working every other night, so they come into the Caps-Penguins caldron (or any other matchup) with only secondhand information as to what kind of things are and aren’t being called.

Six referees have worked the first three games of the series, and no referee worked more than one game in the Caps-Rangers series.

That leaves the players guessing. Will some clutching and grabbing be allowed? Will every stick infraction result in a two-minute ban? Will post-whistle shenanigans be tolerated or punished?

“It’s a real hard game to referee,” McPhee said. “We understand that. But it can’t be 7-2 in an NHL playoff game when you really didn’t feel that [it should have been that] way.”

The Caps players shied away from entering the officiating discussion, pointing at their own play as the reason for the disparity.

“Pittsburgh did a lot to earn their penalties, and we took some stupid ones,” Steckel said.

Added center Nicklas Backstrom: “Our penalties were deserved, but maybe they should have gotten a couple more penalties. Pittsburgh was the better team, and maybe we got penalties because we weren’t.”

Six of the Caps’ penalties came in their own zone, which was appropriate since Pittsburgh controlled puck possession and flummoxed Washington’s efforts to clear the puck. Tired players are more apt to commit penalties. If the Caps can get back to their game, they will begin to generate power-play chances.

“Was [Game 3] officiated differently? I don’t think so,” Pothier said. “Of course there are always a couple calls in your head that you second-guess. But overall they played most of the game in our end, so I don’t expect them to take a lot of penalties. Usually when you’re chasing is when you’re going to take penalties. We didn’t take care of the puck, so we did a lot of chasing.”

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