The New York Islanders have made a habit of giving up late-game leads this season. We know this. The players know this. The national hockey media knows this. It’s no secret that the Isles are a team that plays better when trailing, whatever the reason.
When holding a lead? Not so much.
Perhaps the most infamous example of tentative third-period play dooming the Islanders was the 3-2 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 17. The Isles led 2-0 with roughly 10 minutes left in the game, but gave up two goals in the final three minutes of regulation—including the game-tying goal at 19:56—and eventually lost in a shootout.
That was it. That was rock bottom. Rather, that was rock bottom until Saturday afternoon’s 4-3 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues.
The Islanders again took a lead late into the third period against one of the NHL’s top teams, but couldn’t shut the door and seal the victory in front of a near-capacity Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum crowd.
Leading 3-2 with less than a minute remaining in regulation, the Isles allowed a goal to Blues winger T.J. Oshie at 19:33, and again were forced to play an overtime period in a game where one wasn’t expected and probably shouldn’t have been required.
Which is right when the NHL stepped in to liven things up.
Because why have a run-of-the-mill late-game Isles collapse when you can have that same type of collapse with the League adding insult to injury for good measure?
The NHL’s Situation Room—informally known as the ‘War Room’—is located on the 11th floor of the League office in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It’s a room filled with TV monitors on which every game on a given day is viewed, replayed, and analyzed, with the intention of getting on-ice calls correct.
That’s its sole purpose: to get. Calls. Correct.
So when Thomas Vanek scored what appeared to be the game-winning goal at 3:45 of the overtime period, it was almost a formality when the on-ice officials skated to the scorer’s table to review the play.
The Islanders were celebrating at center ice. The Blues were skating toward the runway that leads to the visiting locker room.
The puck had crossed the goal line; the referee standing behind Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak had emphatically pointed to the net; and the Coliseum goal horn was blasting, much to the delight of the home fans.
Everyone—the players on both teams, the broadcasters in the press box, and most importantly, the referee standing three feet from the net—thought it was a good goal. The War Room’s review was supposed to be quick and conclusive and confirm that Vanek had won the game for the Islanders.
But approximately 500 miles away from the Coliseum, in a room filled with TV monitors on which the play had been viewed, replayed, and analyzed several times already, it looked…different.
As in, it looked like not a goal. Apparently.
Which is right about the time that the term “distinct kicking motion” became a four-letter word on Long Island. The referee skated to center ice, turned to face the camera, and announced that the call on the ice had been overturned.
The boos from the crowd were relentless.
An aside: the overturned call—suspect as it was—in no way absolves the Islanders from their mistake in giving up the lead. The Isles’ struggles to protect leads late in games are well documented. But that doesn’t mean the call sat well with the Isles players.
“It hit off my skate blade and spun right in,” Vanek said. “I don’t know if it’s because it’s who we are. I think if that’s Pittsburgh or one of those top teams, it’s maybe a goal.”
And Vanek didn’t stop there in his assessment of the War Room’s review. “To me it’s just a terrible call. I thought we played a solid game against a really good St. Louis team. For that to be overturned is just too bad,” he said.
Whether you agree with Vanek’s belief or not, his teammates and his coach backed him up. Because the idea that the Islanders were on the wrong side of the League’s decision was one that was held by every player in the dressing room on Saturday.
“The refs on the ice had it as a goal. They just said it was a kicking motion from Toronto. It’s a tough break, we didn’t think it was kicked,” said John Tavares.
When asked if he thought a team like Chicago or St. Louis would have a goal like Vanek’s reversed, Tavares said, “I don’t know. You’d have to call the guys in Toronto. Obviously it’s a pretty tough call to overturn.”
Even head coach Jack Capuano echoed his players’ sentiments, although he stopped short of implying that the NHL harbors outright bias against his team.
“The referees made the right call on the ice. I’ll say that,” said Capuano. “I looked at it, and again: it’s their decision in Toronto. They must’ve saw something conclusive to overturn it.”
With the way the game ended—or at least, how the 15,000-plus fans at the Coliseum thought the game ended in overtime—the fan narrative will inevitably turn toward the perceived lack of respect the Islanders seem to be given by the NHL.
This time, that narrative has a slight twist.
In a scenario where the League had a chance to affirm that video review asserts the correct call is made, it missed the mark. While replays clearly show Vanek turning his skate blade as a Blues player is pushing his foot into the puck, the War Room concluded that a “distinct kicking motion” had occurred on Vanek’s part.
In short: no goal.
“It is what it is, it obviously shouldn’t have gotten to that point in the first place,” said Tavares. “We did a good job for the most part. We just need to find a way to buckle down and get it done. That’s a big point that we lost today.”
Tavares’s point is well made. Had the Islanders been able to close out the final 27 seconds of regulation, the story of the game would have been about how the Isles had beaten one of the NHL’s best teams.
Unfortunately for the Islanders, the story of the game is about a loss made possible, in part, by the NHL.
Follow me on the Twitter (@MichaelWillhoft) and let me know what you thought about the call. Because sometimes it’s better to talk it out than send strongly worded letters to the League office.