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Examining Goaltender Interference: the most frustrating NHL rule

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Coaches, players, and the NHL all struggle to find consistency with goalie interference calls. NHL GMs meet to discuss the issue.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

For the next three days, all 31 NHL General Managers will meet in Florida to discuss, among other things, the issue of goaltender interference.

Hardly anyone knows what goaltender interference is anymore. Sometimes attacking players appear to blatantly make contact with the opposing goalie but no interference is called while other times goals get overturned when the goalie is hardly even touched.

One of the reasons why the calls have been so inconsistent is because any goaltender interference calls and subsequent video reviews are judged by on-ice officials and not a league official in a video room.

It’s been difficult for the league to standardize judgement for goaltender interference, especially when the decisions are made by a different pair of referees every game. When reviewing the play for a coach’s challenge, it’s also difficult to expect referees to undermine their original judgement on the ice.

This inconsistency has become a real problem for the NHL and a major source of frustration for coaches and players. Let’s take a look at the rule and some recent examples.

Rule 69: Interference on the Goaltender

The goaltender interference rule was introduced in the 1991-1992 NHL season and is based on the idea that the attacking player’s position shouldn’t automatically determine whether a goal is allowed or not. This means that there’s no explicit prohibition made for standing in the goalie crease and goals scored from inside the blue paint can be counted in the right circumstances.

The 2017-2018 NHL rule-book lays out the circumstances in which a goal that involved contact with the crease of the goalie would NOT be counted:

“Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease.”

In the case of incidental contact, the rule states that the goal should be upheld if the contact is initiated outside the goal crease, as long as the player has made a “reasonable effort” to avoid contact.

Goaltender interference is enforced by on-ice officials but are subject to a Coach’s Challenge and video review.

This sounds pretty straightforward on paper (besides the highly subjective “reasonable effort” part) but lately on-ice officials have been making a lot of highly controversial goaltender interference calls and non-calls. It’s gotten to the point where some NHL coaches are publicly asking the league to start officiating with consistency before the playoffs start in April.

Case Study: Toronto vs. Buffalo, allowed Johan Larsson goal

Let’s take a look at a recent example where a controversial goal was allowed.

Johan Larsson of the Buffalo Sabres made contact with Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen before throwing the puck to the net to put Buffalo up 5-2 in the third period.

Even though Larsson’s contact with Andersen appeared to trip him up and impead his ability to defend his goal, the on-ice officials judged the goal valid. Toronto coach Mike Babcock challenged the goal but the on-ice call was upheld after further review.

The referees claimed that Andersen was interfered with outside of the blue paint. According to the rules, if contact is initiated outside the paint and the attacking player makes “reasonable effort” to avoid the goalie, any resulting goals are to be upheld.

Babcock (and many Toronto fans) were noticeably upset by this call because they believed contact was initiated inside the crease.

Even if Andersen was outside of his crease, the goal could have been overturned if the referees had judged the contact as intentional.

Case Study: Pittsburgh vs Toronto, disallowed Brian Dumoulin goal

Let’s take a look at a recent example where a controversial goal was overturned.

Brian Dumoulin of the Pittsburgh Penguins drove in from the side of the net to put in a goal and put the Penguins on the scoreboard. But the goal was immediately waved off by on-ice officials for goaltender interference and Dumoulin was given a two minute penalty.

Dumoulin does knock Andersen in the head before the puck crosses the goal line which would interfere with his ability to play the puck in his crease.

One outstanding question is whether Dumoulin made contact with Andersen on his own or if he was pushed by Maple Leaf’s player Ron Hainsey.

According the the NHL rule-book:

“If an attacking player has been pushed, shoved, or fouled by a defending player so as to cause him to come into contact with the goalkeeper, such contact will not be deemed contact initiated by the attacking player for purposes of this rule, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.”

If Hainsey pushed Dumoulin in to Andersen, then it wouldn’t be considered as contact initiated by the attacker according to the rules and the goal would have been upheld.

Notice that the subjective phrase “reasonable effort to avoid contact” makes another appearance in the goaltender interference rule.

Even Jaime Benn and Jeremy Roenick weighed in on this controversial call.

More Frustrating Goalie Interference Examples

DeBrusk’s contact with the goalie pushed him out of the crease but the Bruins goal was upheld.

Conner McDavid’s game winning goal in overtime was overturned for goalie interference.

Anisimov looks like he’s sitting on the goalie but the resulting Blackhawk’s goal was upheld.

Contact with the Star’s goalie was initiated outside the crease for this disallowed goal.

Goalie Interference Heading in to the Playoffs

Inconsistent goalie interference calls aren’t just frustrating for players and coaches, the league seems stumped when it comes to figuring out how to make these calls more reliable.

During the recent All-Star game, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman downplayed the problem. He believes the system works but referees need a “refresher” on not looking for reasons to overturn the call on the ice.

With goalie interference on the agenda for the NHL GM’s meeting, hopefully they can figure out the steps needed to make these calls more consistent. However, even with the issue on the agenda, most agree that it’s unlikely that any rule changes will be made before the playoffs.

Sportsnet’s Paul Romanuk advocated for the NHL to adopt IIHF rules as a possible solution. In international hockey competitions, including the Olympics, players are prohibited from entering the blue paint. “If an attacking skater establishes position in the goal crease, play will be stopped and the ensuing faceoff will take place at the nearest faceoff spot in the neutral zone.”

In the meantime, the NHL wants players and coaches to be less outspoken about their frustration with goalie interference calls. With so much at stake for teams during the post-season, keeping players and coaches quiet might be too much for the league to ask if a controversial goalie interference call turns the tide of a critical playoff game.