Were there too many men on the ice when Nazem Kadri scored in overtime and gave the Colorado Avalanche a victory over the Tampa Bay Lighting on Wednesday night? It’s an understatement to say Kadri’s goal, which ended Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, was huge. But should it have counted?
Replays showed that there may have been too many men on the ice as the game-winning play developed. Should one of the referees or linesmen made the call? There was no whistle. It’s one of those discretionary calls, or non-calls, that is not reviewable.
Those Blue Jackets fans whose history of frustration is biblical in its proportions – and if you remember Andrej Nedorost, then frustration has an Old Testament wrath – might’ve made some funny noises when they saw the Kadri goal. Noises like “bah” or “(expletive).”
The most grizzled Jackets fans are sensitive when it comes to that specific penalty. Too many men on the ice. In 2009 – 13 years ago! – it was a questionable call on Fredrik Modin that ended the Jackets’ first foray into the playoffs. Too many men on the ice made sure it ended in a sweep.
“By the rule book it’s probably the right call,” then-coach Ken Hitchcock said at the time. “By the circumstances of the game, I didn’t like it at all.”
Jackets fans had waited through seven seasons and a lockout year for their team to make its first playoff appearance. Remember, the Jackets were in the West then. They drew the defending champions, the Detroit Red Wings, in the first round.
The Wings romped through the first three games by a combined score of 12-2.
Game 4 was played in the Nationwide Arena on April 23, 2009. It was the first bit of fabulous playoff theater in the history of the building. And, while nobody knew it at the time, the Jackets would go on to miss the playoffs in six of the next seven seasons.
Game 4, then, was 60 minutes that would stick in Columbus’ craw for years. For some, it does yet.
The Blue Jackets of of 2008-09 were Rick Nash, R.J. Umberger and a 19-year-old Led Zeppelin aficionado Jakub Voracek. They were the Jackets of Michael Peca, Fedor Tyutin and Steve Mason, a 20-year-old rookie goaltender who won the Calder Trophy.
Game 4 was a riotous clash in which neither team gave quarter and the referees put away their whistles. Nearly every fan in the sellout crowd of 18,888 stood and cheered for the entire third period. Those who were there can still hear the roar.
Deep into the third period of a 5-5 game, Voracek, at the end of a 70-second shift, dragged himself toward the bench as his replacement, Modin, jumped over the boards.
Before Voracek could get off the ice, the puck came Modin’s way and he played it. Lineseman Steve Miller blew his whistle as soon as Modin touched the puck. Two-minute minor. Too many men on the ice.
There were 94 seconds remaining in a deadlocked playoff game. The crowd howled with anger and disbelief. Amid the chaos on the ice, Jason Chimera, who ran a little hot under any circumstances, stalked the linesman in question and barked a blue streak.
“When that team is going on the power play at that time in the game, you know you’re dead,” Hitchcock said 13 years later.
And so they were.
With 46.6 seconds remaining, Johan Franzen tucked in a rebound, and his power-play goal won the game and completed a sweep of the series. Cans, bottles and other assorted debris flew down to the ice from the stands.
“The ones at the bench bother you,” Hitchcock said the other day. “The bench is such a chaotic area. The players are trying to do the right thing, whether they’re seven feet or five feet from the bench, they’re trying to do exactly what the coach expects of them. Those are the ones that bug you.”
Hitch went on to talk about the art of the “quick change” – a near-wholesale line change used to outflank an opponent after a faceoff win in the defensive zone – that exploits the grey area of the too-many-men rule. While this was a fascinating digression, it is not exactly germane to this trip down memory lane, and besides, when Hitch is telling stories, there are times when he does not let facts get in his way.
“I learned how to do it,” Hitchcock said. “I got caught twice. Quick changes are part of the game, and if you can get away with it, great.”
Hitch still has that twinkle in his eye, eh?
When he says, “those are the ones that bug you” he is speaking for every Blue Jackets fan who watched on April 23, 2009. They still wonder how, in a spirited playoff game where the officials were clearly “letting the players play” – dang, Chimera was running around, tearing off Red Wings’ helmets – how can they call Modin for too many men on the ice? With 94 seconds remaining in a tie game?
As Peca said at the time, “Don’t put the game on the line for THAT.”
Kevin Collins, longtime linesman (28 years, 11 Stanley Cup Finals), was the off-ice supervisor for officials for Game 4. I caught up to him outside the officials’ locker room. He said the call was a no-brainer and he would have made the call himself.
“How could I live with myself if I didn’t make the call?” Collins said. “It’s the right call.”
He added that, hypothetically, that there is no whistle if Modin doesn’t touch the puck.
“He’s right,” Hitchcock said 13 years later.
That’s not exactly what Hitch said at the time.
“I know that, but I was in a different mood.”
The call guaranteed a series sweep for the Wings, who would go on to the Cup final in 2009, where they ran into a 21-year-old by the name of Sidney Crosby.
Jackets fans have come to understand well the preciousness of the playoffs. Their team has made it to the tournament but six times and won just one series in 21 seasons spread over 22 years.
After two more playoff misses, and amid a rebuild, they look forward to next week’s draft. It’ll be held Thursday and Friday in Montreal. There will be a watch party here in Columbus. The Jackets for the second year in a row have two first-round picks. (I think they land on forward Cutter Gauthier at No. 6 overall. Discuss.)
Where will fortune take them next? The fans here have never had a Game 7.