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Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning players are separated by officials in the second period of Game 6 of their Stanley Cup playoff series (Paul Sancya/AP)
Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning players are separated by officials in the second period of Game 6 of their Stanley Cup playoff series (Paul Sancya/AP)

Mirtle: NHL’s ‘let them play’ attitude does disservice to playoff brilliance Add to ...

PK Subban wasn’t suspended for a big slash to Mark Stone’s wrist. Dustin Byfuglien wasn’t suspended for a punch after the whistle (and a goal) on Corey Perry.

Now the NHL’s discipline team have another key decision to make, one that will determine whether the league escapes the first round without a suspension.

Or not.

The Detroit Red Wings top defenceman, Niklas Kronwall, is in the spotlight with a Game 7 on the line, as he turned sideways into a big, high hit on Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, which could land him on the sidelines for Wednesday’s game.

At the very least, it was a missed penalty in a pivotal game, which the Lightning won.

It wasn’t the only one on Monday.

Over in Washington, where the Capitals played well to advance to Round 2, Alex Ovechkin should have had two minutes in the box for a hit from behind in that Game 7. A lot of his teammates (and the Islanders) could have joined him, but didn’t, as officials called exactly one penalty the entire game: a roughing minor with three minutes left on John Carlson.

How that was the only infraction worthy of potentially deciding the game was a mystery.

Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of room on the ice in that one. Between them, the two teams generated only 37 shots – a far cry from the NHL’s 60-shot average and one of the lowest totals all year.

Generally speaking, the NHL has done a good job in the past of cracking down on calls when the playoffs open. Typically there’s little drop off in minors called between the regular season and the first round, with the whistle-disappearing starting later in the postseason.

This year, with only one game left to play, there have been slightly under six power plays per game, which is down slightly from during the year.

But it’s a figure that is way down from 2012 when it was 6.6, which was way down (20 per cent) from 2009 and (43 per cent) from 2006, when there were nearly double that.

That’s not all players making adjustments. The so-called new NHL of 10 years ago is becoming closer to the obstruction-filled Dead Puck Era, and calls are getting missed that are far less egregious than the few mentioned above.

Some of the hockey in the first round has been very good. The Blackhawks-Predators series was excellent, for one, and it featured the second highest number of power plays per game of any opening round matchup. (Lightning-Wings sits first with Game 7 looming.)

But two series had fewer than four power plays a game – an incredible low – and that was something that contributed to some ugly hockey, especially in the Wild’s stifling elimination against the Blues.

SeriesGPGoals*PPsPP/G
Ducks-Jets424246.0
Blues-Wild626233.8
Hawks-Preds639416.8
Canucks-Flames629345.7
Rangers-Pens519336.6
Habs-Sens623406.7
Lightning-Wings627528.7
Caps-Isles729273.9
Per game4.75.96

No one wants to watch power play-filled contests like those of 2005-06, but surely there’s a happy medium here. Call the high hits and those to the head. Call the hits from behind. Call the obvious obstruction, lest the league keep reverting back to what it was.

What’s obvious is scoring is way down, and it’s not coming back without substantial change. If you pull out the 16 empty netters in the 46 games played in Round 1, you’re left with only 4.7 goals per game, one of the lowest rates in league history. (The last regular season with scoring that low was in the 1930s.)

What that’s doing is creating situations like the one in Ottawa on Sunday, where a fluky goal against and a blown goal call decided an elimination game because that’s all the scoring there was.

Senators coach Dave Cameron called the result “puck luck,” and that wasn’t sour grapes. That’s reality. And with games this low scoring, that puck luck very well could decide who wins the Stanley Cup after a series of 2-1 games.

The teams are so close because of parity, but the games are so close because goals are so scarce.

Luckily, Evgeny Kuznetsov’s series winner for the Capitals on Monday was a thing of beauty, as the rookie danced out from the half boards, through a few defenders and outwaited the goaltender before putting it over Jaroslav Halak.

It came out of nowhere, and it was magic.

That magic has, at times, been missing in Round 1. Given how tight things get as the postseason goes on, that likely becomes even more of an issue the deeper we go.

This isn’t so much about wanting to take the spotlight off the goalies. The talent in net is terrific, and that’s the biggest reason why save percentages keep going up every year. It’s more about wanting skill to decide more games than obstruction plays and random chance, and one way for that to happen is to allow skill players more room to manoeuvre and create plays like Kuznetsov’s.

The only way to do that is to call penalties as penalties.

A novel idea, no doubt.

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Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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