There is a sound that accompanies the NHL playoffs every spring, a sound as dependable as the San Jose Sharks coming down with a bad case of the yips - whining about the referees.
This year, the sound seems especially shrill, from the predictable conspiracy nonsense put out by the tin-foil hat brigade that populates much of the Vancouver Canucks fan base and some of the local media to shouts of outrage in Montreal and hissy fits in Philadelphia over a game the Flyers won, for crying out loud.
Funny thing, though. Both of the men in charge of the NHL's referees say the squawking is no worse than usual. "In 31 years, I've always found the first round is the most hectic," said Terry Gregson, in his first season as the league's director of officiating after a long career as a referee and supervisor.
Gregson's boss, NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, said the same. But, Campbell added, there is something that is much worse this year.
"The one thing I have seen, which makes a referee's job harder, is a lot more embellishing and diving by the players," Campbell said. He added that he has not sent out an edict about this to the teams but that the officials supervisors for each series have been apprised and they will alert the referees about who to watch.
Flyers pest Daniel Carcillo, for example, whose arching swan dive earlier in the series against the New Jersey Devils drew a penalty, may need a broken bone showing to get another call for the rest of his career. Campbell did not finger Carcillo but said, "You cry wolf once, too bad."
This has an indirect bearing on the Canucks, whose fans are still screaming about a disallowed goal Monday on Daniel Sedin and the too-many-men penalty called last Saturday that helped the Los Angeles Kings score the winning goal on a power play.
During the regular season, the most notorious diving contretemps involved Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows and referee Stéphane Auger. After being the victim of a borderline call at best, Burrows said Auger had told him before the game he would get him back for embarrassing him in a previous game with a dive - and hilarity ensued.
Well, the Canucks cannot blame Auger for their troubles because he was one of a few veteran referees not to make the postseason cut. Better their penalty killers should figure out a way not to cough up a goal every time a Canucks player is in the box.
Twenty of the NHL's 33 full-time referees were picked to work the first round of the playoffs. Some familiar names are not among the 20 but three of them - Don Van Massenhoven, Dave Jackson and Mike Hasenfratz - are injured. Aside from Auger, Rob Martell is the only referee who was not picked who has worked more than 300 NHL games.
Gregson said the decision on Auger was based on a season-long assessment and had nothing to do with the Burrows flap. "It's a tough competition. Twenty guys get in out of 33 and that's the way it is," he said.
However, one veteran referee, who did not want to be named, said the retirements of several well-known referees in the past two years, plus the absence of the three injured veterans, means there are more inexperienced officials than usual working this spring. The referee said it does not necessarily mean the quality of the officiating has dropped but it does mean players, coaches and general managers are a lot quicker to start screaming about calls they don't like.
In the past two years, the NHL has lost Rob Shick, Don Koharski, Mick McGeough, Kerry Fraser and Dan Marouelli to retirement. All of them worked well into the playoffs during their careers.
"What you might find with some of the senior people leaving is that the level of acceptance of the new guys [by the players and coaches]is not there yet," the referee said. "It's different when you know a Marouelli steps on the ice or a Shick or Fraser or Koho [Koharski] The players know what they're getting."
Gregson said his officials are not perfect but he feels their work so far in the playoffs is up to scratch. This was echoed by Campbell. The critics, Campbell said, should worry about themselves.
"If you are spouting too much about how you're getting screwed [by the referees] then you're really avoiding the fact you should spend some time figuring out how to win the game on the ice," Campbell said.