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NHL referee Kelly Sutherland officiated Sunday's Game 6 in Chicago. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images) (Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
NHL referee Kelly Sutherland officiated Sunday's Game 6 in Chicago. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images) (Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Gary Mason

Canucks find easy scapegoat in referees Add to ...

With his team on the verge of arguably the worst collapse in NHL playoff history, Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis resorted to one of the oldest tricks in the book to take pressure off his players.

He attacked the officiating.

But far from being an unsubstantiated rant born of frustration over the way his team is playing, Gillis came armed with facts when he met the media Monday on the eve of Tuesday's pivotal Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Gillis said the stats showed that the first two games of the series were pretty even, penalty wise. But the playing field tilted dramatically in Chicago's favour after that.

"In the last four games, Chicago had 69-per-cent more power plays than we did," Gillis told reporters. "When the game was close, when the score was within a goal or two, Chicago received 100-per-cent more power plays plus a penalty shot.

"I'm not sure how you explain that discrepancy but we're going to be very hard-pressed to win hockey games if, throughout an entire series when the score is tight, they get 75-per-cent more power plays than we do."

Chicago has had 27 power-play advantages in the series, compared to just 16 for the Canucks. It is the largest discrepancy between any two teams competing in the playoffs. While playing at home, the Blackhawks have enjoyed a 17-8 power-play advantage over the Canucks.

While the refs have certainly missed obvious penalties against both teams over the course of the series, the Hawks did appear to get away with far more than they should have during their 4-3 OT win in Game 6.

Chicago enforcer John Scott, who played a total of 59 seconds in the last game, punched Alex Burrows in the face in plain sight of the ref and received nothing for it. Bryan Bickell blindsided Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa behind the Canucks net, in a hit eerily reminiscent of the Raffe Torres hit on Brent Seabrook, and got off scot-free. Dave Boland slew-footed Henrik Sedin and then slashed his stick in half-tomahawk style and avoided a penalty in both instances. And those are just some of the moves Chicago players got away with.

Gillis said he's raised his concerns with the league.

Of course, complaining about the referring in a particularly tight playoff series is a time-honoured tradition in hockey.

In the spring of 2002, then-Canucks GM Brian Burke went on an officiating rant during his team's series against the Detroit Red Wings. "I want to point out to the officials that Todd Bertuzzi does not play for Detroit," Burke said at the time, "it just looks like that because he's wearing two or three Red Wings sweaters all the time." He added: "Sedin is not English for 'punch me or headlock me in a scrum.'"

While entertaining, it failed to have any impact on the outcome of the series, which the Canucks lost.

Wayne Gretzky gave his famous "the world is out to get us" speech in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics. It is often cited as a tactic that helped alleviate pressure on his team. Of course, it is only viewed this way only because his team went on to win the gold medal. Its real impact on the players is dubious.

Generally complaining about the officiating has limited results. There is always the temptation for players to buy into whatever the coach or GM is selling and using it as a crutch should they go on to lose the series they are in.

Perhaps Gillis should be more concerned about his goalie in Tuesday night's epic encounter. In a surprise move, coach Alain Vigneault announced at his news conference that Roberto Luongo will start. Stranger still, Vigneault said the decision was made before Game 6. So it wasn't going to matter how Cory Schneider played Sunday night in Chicago, he wasn't getting the start if there was a Game 7.

It's a move that will inevitably be debated. In the end, however, Canucks management likely felt they couldn't bench their $10-million goalie in the biggest game of the year. If he sat and the Canucks lost with Schneider in net, Luongo's status heading into next season would certainly be up in the air.

No, Luongo should start but be on an extra short leash. A couple of bad goals in the first period and that should be it for him.

For his part, Gillis remains confident in his team. You wouldn't expect him to sound any other way.

"I think we're in great shape," he said. "I think if we can get a level playing field I like our chances."

We'll see if his strategy pays off.

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