Goaltender interference debate is alive and well in the NHL playoffs after 1st-round controversy

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Florida Panthers center Carter Verhaeghe (23) skates into Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) as defenseman Erik Cernak (81) looks on during the second period of Game 2 of the first-round of an NHL Stanley Cup Playoff series, Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. Verhaeghe was charged with goaltender interference. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Minutes after his team was knocked out of the NHL playoffs in a game that included two disallowed goals because of goaltender interference, Jon Cooper was careful to say those calls weren't the reason the Tampa Bay Lightning lost the series. He still had a problem with them.

Cooper, a two-time Stanley Cup-winning coach, pointed out the league has made one rule change after another to encourage offense. When Tampa Bay scored its first goal, Florida coach Paul Maurice successfully challenged to wipe it out for goalie interference; when on-ice officials ruled a later Lightning goal should not count for the same reason, Cooper challenged but the call was upheld. His team went on to lose 6-1 and he said afterward he didn't think there was enough evidence for either call.

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It was clear this was the biggest controversy of the postseason so far.

At least one prominent colleague agreed with Cooper's sentiment, and many of the coaches left in the playoffs acknowledge there's a delicate balance when it comes to goalie interference, when the decision or a coach's challenge can swing a game or a series at the most important time of year.

“It’s an area they’re going to have to look at to shore up,” said Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour, who sided with Cooper on the premise about goalies being overprotected for incidental contact. “We we want to see goals, especially those ones when you’re fighting around the net. If you knock a goalie over, that’s goalie interference. But there should be a little more onus on just the common sense part of it.”

After his Panthers were on the positive end of all three goalie interference challenges so far, Maurice felt he could be more philosophical about the topic than if he were in Cooper’s chair. The veteran coach who guided Florida to the Stanley Cup Final last year felt confident enough to challenge but wasn’t entirely sure what the league’s situation room would decide.

Still, he thinks goalie interference is clearer now than it was four or five years ago because the pendulum has swung from zero tolerance to more contact and settled in the middle.

“They’ve tried to narrow it,” Maurice said. “If the goaltender can’t get to the save, it’s goalie interference. So, what I do (behind the bench) on that is truly ‘spirit of the rule.’ I try not to factor in all the things that are criteria that they tell you. Is (an opponent) in his crease to stop him from making a save I think he can save? It’s almost that simple.”

What takes some of simplicity out of the process is the punishment: a 2-minute delay-of-game penalty for any unsuccessful challenge, either for goaltender interference or offside. Challenging for offside is usually more clear since it is based on video coaches watch closely; rarely do they get it wrong.

Goalie interference has become something like the definition of a catch in football, a moving target. As such, the calculus that goes into challenging it is on a coach-by-coach, case-by-case basis.

"Time and score has something to do with it, the way your team plays has something to do with it," said Colorado's Jared Bednar, who led the Avalanche to the Cup in 2022. “The reality of the situation often is you better be sure it’s goalie interference, if you’re going to challenge it. If it’s questionable, then you’re likely not getting the call and sometimes when you’re sure, you don’t get the call. People that say they have it figured out, I would argue and disagree because we don’t.”

Bednar added that if there was a poll of NHL coaches, he thinks it would show the league hasn't yet established a clear standard. That gray area is what drives coaches crazy.

Cooper credited Sergei Bobrovsky for duping officials to sell the calls and lamented how two skaters engaging in a net-front battle can be responsible for disallowing goals. Maurice pointed to a potential goalie interference situation in the Nashville-Vancouver series as interesting because of contact within the crease.

Brind'Amour echoed Cooper's use of the word “egregious” as a key need for evidence to reverse a call on the ice. And no one knows when the next time goalie interference will play a key role in a playoff game this spring.

“The puck’s by the goalie on some of these and you get hit and then it’s still — like, it’s a judgment call — and so it’s somebody’s opinion and my opinion and your opinion might be different on these,” Brind'Amour said. “That’s why this whole thing is tough because it does come down to opinions.”


AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Aaron Beard in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Pat Graham in Denver contributed.


AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

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