PITTSBURGH -- Sooner or later, I knew this was going to become an issue during the Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators. So as soon as I landed in Pittsburgh, I made a beeline past the Erwin Pearl and went straight to the information booth inside the airport terminal, where I laid my soul bare to a lovely lifelong Yinzer we'll call Larry, since, technically, the airport folks aren't supposed to speak to the media.
Even though this issue has plagued the game throughout the entire 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, the players themselves seem to have absolutely no clue how to answer my question. Same goes for the coaches, the refs and even the commissioner himself. So I figured, what the heck, an info pro like Larry was as good a source as any to solve one of the greatest mysteries in sports these days.
"Larry," I pleaded while standing in front of his booth, "can you please explain goaltender interference to me?"
I had come to the right place. Larry's a hockey guy, it turns out. Heck, he has even figured out a way to watch Penguins games on the TV across the concourse by leaning way down in his booth when no one's looking. He picked at his purple shirt while contemplating my inquiry for a moment, then looked up and said: "That right there is what we in this town call a classic 'tweener' situation. Was that goal interference? Or not? I don't really know. No one really knows, ya know? I'm not sure the refs even know. Does it even matter? The answer always seems to be somewhere in between -- a tweener -- and it usually depends on which team you're rootin' for. OK then, enjoy dontawn Pittsburgh."
Like his accent, Larry's explanation was as good as any I've come across during these playoffs. (And trust me, I asked bus drivers, hotel maids, guest services at PPG Paints Arena and even a panhandler near my hotel carrying a sign that said: "Not gonna lie, I just want to buy beer.") I mean, we all knew this was going to be an issue way back in Round 1 when, by my count, four of the eight series hinged on confounding and controversial goaltender interference (GTI) calls.
The rule itself is wordy, subjective and contradictory in a way that seems to have been inspired by the Penrose stairs. Combined with the league's new coach's challenge system, it has become nearly impossible for even a hockey expert to know definitively what constitutes a clean goal. Which, if you think about it, is a little like Major League Baseball heading into the World Series without a clear understanding of which balls hit over the outfield fence will count as home runs and which will count as outs.
"Listen, I'm an analyst, which means I get paid to understand and describe these plays for a living, and I can't even tell you," said Anson Carter, who played 11 seasons in the NHL and now covers the sport for NBC. "Sometimes things happen on the ice and I think, 'Oh, that's definitely a goal' -- and it's disallowed. Then I see one and think, 'Oh, that's not a goal at all' -- and it's allowed. When it comes to goaltender interference these days, I don't think anyone really knows."
Even if you were among the tiny few who navigated the first round with our understanding of NHL Rule 69.1 still fully intact, well, then you took in the Anaheim Ducks-Edmonton Oilers debacle and ended up totally and utterly lost just like the rest of us.
In Game 4 of their second-round playoff series, the Oilers were up 2-0 and cruising when the Ducks scored after forward Corey Perry appeared to blatantly run into Oilers goalie Cam Talbot's blocker with his backside. With the Pandora's box known as goalie interference now open, the fun began. In a moment that would repeat itself throughout this postseason, an apoplectic Talbot called it a "garbage" goal and the Oilers seemed justified in believing they were covered by Rule 69.4 -- aka contact outside the goal crease, which says, in part, that if an attacking player initiates any contact with a goalkeeper ... while the goalkeeper is outside his goal crease, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.
Ah, that was too easy. Nope. Turns out, Rule 69.1 is an onion: The more layers you peel back, the worse it stinks. See, there's a secondary part of this section that deals with "incidental contact" as well as something called Table 16 that also governs "simultaneous contact." Bottom line: GTI is so poorly defined and open-ended that the refs and the league office can essentially justify any call or any outcome no matter how egregious. Once fans start to question the authenticity of the outcomes (even a little), well, then it's only a matter of time before you're pro wrestling. Yet that's exactly what the guys in the NHL situation room did with this one when, I guess, they found a loophole inside a footnote inside an addendum that allowed the Ducks to keep their goal, steal the game and tie the series. Some members of the Oilers media called it one of the most bitter moments in franchise history.
But remember, this is the NHL and goaltender interference.
They hadn't seen anything yet.
Things only got more confusing, complicated -- and infuriating -- in Game 5, when the Ducks scored to send the game into OT all while Anaheim center Ryan Kesler appeared to be holding open Talbot's 5-hole with his hands. Surely, we all thought, that's as cut and dried as GTI can get.
This time, my guess is that the refs used Rule section 78.7 to say that it wasn't Kesler's fault because he had been pushed into Talbot, all while ignoring Rule 69.3, which says Kesler must still make an effort to vacate the crease at some point. When the goal was allowed, essentially ending the Oilers' playoff chances, Edmonton's Milan Lucic seemed to speak for all of us when he said: "I don't even know what goaltender interference is anymore, to be perfectly honest. If someone knows, call me and tell me."
Commissioner Gary Bettman took on the challenge of explaining and defending goaltender interference before Game 1 of the Final in Pittsburgh -- and his logic was about as easy to follow as Rule 69.1.
"With respect to goaltender interference, let's start with the fact that that is a judgment call. Everybody knows it's a judgment call," Bettman said. "If you're on the wrong side of the outcome, you hate the rule, you don't understand exactly what the standard is. All of those complaints."
Bettman then pointed out, I guess as proof that the system is working perfectly, that GTI penalties are down 22 percent from a year ago; as if the only concern is the sheer volume of infractions not that he, uh, runs a sport in which no one has the slightest clue what actually constitutes a goal these days.
In less than one season, this has become hockey's version of the NFL's ridiculously confusing catch rule.
"Same exact thing," Carter confirmed. "Dez Bryant, that was a catch [in the 2014 divisional playoffs]. That was a catch and the Cowboys should have been one step closer to the Super Bowl. That call still has me shaking my head, but I live in this NHL world so I can relate to the frustration that NFL fans are feeling, because I don't think anyone knows what a catch is either."
Carter played for the Boston Bruins when a 1999 playoff series against the Buffalo Sabres turned on a Bruins goal that was disallowed because a skate was in the crease. Almost 20 years later, Carter said he still thinks about that call and the "what if" behind it. That same year, of course, Buffalo eventually lost the Cup to the Dallas Stars on a controversial OT goal scored by Brett Hull -- while Hull's skate appeared to be well inside the crease.
This is exactly what worries me the most about goalie interference: With the confusion behind the rule fueled by the opportunity of the coach's challenge, the NHL has basically set itself up for a repeat of the 1999 No Goal embarrassment. It seems almost inevitable that a goalie interference call will play at least a small role in determining who wins the Cup -- and, I swear, here in Pittsburgh you can sense the silent dread of that impending disaster weighing on everyone's minds.
"I do not want to see a Game 7 being determined by the guys in Toronto or the guys in New York," Carter said. "You want to see a game that big determined only by the guys who are on the ice. You do not want that to happen. That's a nightmare scenario for hockey and the league."
It's going to happen. And when it does, when goaltender interference wreaks havoc on this Stanley Cup Final, the result will be what our friend Larry likes to call a tweener.
Something right between a nightmare and a catastrophe.