NHL: Lemieux has to 'fight through that'
MONTREAL – Surprise, surprise: There seems to be some confusion about the NHL's latest rules crackdown.
Before the season, the league informed teams that it planned to eliminate interference, meaning players without the puck could skate freely. By most accounts, the NHL has followed through on that plan.
But to hear some players tell it, the league has forgotten to protect the players with the puck .
Mario Lemieux was asked the following question Monday after the Penguins' morning skate at the Bell Centre: “Is it your understanding that (the crackdown) was all about playing away from the puck and not necessarily playing with the puck?”
“Well, it should be both,” Lemieux said. “It shouldn't be one or the other, so, you know, the guy with the puck should be able to skate freely and not have his stick tugged all the time. That's what I said the last 10 years, and that was my understanding, anyway. But, you know, I'm not sure now.”
Andy Van Hellemond, the NHL's director of officiating, was asked the same question yesterday.
“It wasn't both,” he said. “It was play away from the puck.”
Van Hellemond, speaking in a phone interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, responded directly to Lemieux's statement.
“If somebody said to me Mario should be able to skate freely (with the puck), without anybody tugging or hooking at his stick, well, part of playing the game is to check somebody. If you check beyond the rules, you get a penalty. If the referee doesn't think the tugging and hooking is past that standard, (Lemieux) has got to fight through that. He has to play.”
Several Penguins players were displeased with the officiating in recent games, particularly with the work of Don Van Massenhoven and Ian Walsh in Saturday's 3-2 loss to the New York Islanders. The loss stretched the Penguins' winless streak to five games. Defenseman Marc Bergevin was fined $1,000 by the league yesterday for berating a referee and delivering a barrage of post-game comments directed at the league.
“It's a (expletive) rodeo out there,” Bergevin said Saturday. “This league's a joke.”
Van Hellemond said many of the complaints he hears come from “teams that don't score goals, lose tough games and get bumped around a little bit.” He spent an hour and a half yesterday watching a tape of the Penguins-Islanders game and suggested that Bergevin might have been trying to deflect attention from some other things that happened.
“On the (Islanders') first goal, the puck was passed right through Bergevin's feet,” Van Hellemond said. “When you start doing these things (publicly criticizing the NHL), you have to watch out, because people might watch what you're doing a little closer. … If they have a complaint, call us, that's what we're here for.”
Another play that angered the Penguins was when Islanders forward Jason Blake appeared to hook Aleksey Morozov in the neutral zone early in the third period. Blake then stole the puck and skated the other way. Morozov tripped him and was penalized. Van Hellemond said Blake's work was legal.
“The judgment of the official was that the first hook didn't impede (Morozov) from moving,” Van Hellemond said. “They were both skating. The next hook never got near him. … When you're on the puck, they can't take you down. But they're allowed to touch you. If we have it where they can't touch you, then how do you get the puck off him?”
On another play, Blake appeared to hook Lemieux behind the goal line. Lemieux then high-sticked Blake and was whistled. Van Hellemond had a feeling Lemieux wanted the first call.
Again, Van Hellemond agreed with his referee.
“You have to be moving and show us you're going somewhere,” he said. “(Blake) was not restraining him, because (Lemieux) wasn't moving.”
In a conference call with his referees last week, Van Hellemond commended them on their enforcement of interference but told them to make sure that calls in front of the net or in the corners — where play gets physical — were not ticky-tacky. Call the stuff that has a direct effect on the game, he said.
The Penguins seemed confused and frustrated going into last night's game against the Montreal Canadiens.
“If you decide to keep the old rules, keep them for both teams,” winger Alexei Kovalev said. “Keep it 5-on-5 and just don't call anything.”
“They don't hold you as much as they did before (in the neutral zone),” forward Martin Straka said. “But in front of the net and in the offensive zone, it's the same thing: They're grabbing, and that will always be the same.”
The Penguins were hoping that last night's game would be called tightly. They got their wish. There were 17 minor penalties in their 5-4 overtime loss. Lemieux seemed pleased with the officiating by Dave Jackson and Tim Peel.
“Until the guys learn that they can't hook and grab, you're going to have tons of penalties, and the guys who can't adjust, they're not going to be able to play in this league,” Lemieux said after the game. “That's the way it should be. It's a speed game. It's still a physical game, but you should be able to generate speed in the neutral zone and scoring chances, and that's the way the game was meant to be played.
“Hopefully, they can keep it going.”