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The words “conspiracy” and “fix” shouldn’t be tossed around lightly in professional sports, and the NHL Commissioner’s Office should be embarrassed that they are words increasingly becoming associated with the NHL, first in the wake of the Sabres’ first round defeat of the Islanders, and now during their second round matchup with the Rangers.

I have never seen a fan base so enraged after a victory, but after yesterday afternoon’s double overtime win, Ranger fans today are more furious than celebratory – and with good cause.

In Game 1, the Rangers were whistled for 8 penalties compared to 5 against the Sabres, however the team played so poorly that no one was in the mood for excuse-making. In Game 2, the team was frustrated that various stick fouls and high hits to the head by Buffalo went unpenalized by the officials, however again the team refused to place blame, realizing that several unforced turnovers cost them a game in which they thoroughly dominated. However, Sunday’s Game 3 proved to be the most lop-sided, poorly officiated, and egregiously crooked of the three contests, and after nearly being forced into an insurmountable 3-0 hole, the team and its fans have seen enough.

Yesterday, the Rangers found themselves at a 5-9 disadvantage on penalty calls, including a 2-7 disadvantage during regulation. However, most infuriating of all was a Karel Rachunek goal in the second period that would’ve given the team a 2-0 advantage, but was disallowed without an iota of just cause.

Via Sam Weinman of the Journal News:

The Rangers had to fight through yesterday as well, on an afternoon in which they were either hounded by bad luck or tight officiating. Of the nine penaltes, three were taken in an eight-minute stretch in the second period, while another, a questionable crosschecking call against [Brendan] Shanahan, led to the game-tying goal by Daniel Briere in the third.

More perplexing was a disallowed goal by Karel Rachunek in the second period that would have given the Rangers a 2-0 lead. Officials determined that Rachunek had kicked at the puck as he drove to the net, but many Rangers contested that the defenseman never demonstated the distinct motion that is required to disallow the goal.

It ended up being a moot point once [Michal] Rozsival clinched the win, but it reinforced to the Rangers that nothing in this series is likely to come easy.

“We’re not going to be given anything,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said when asked if he felt the team deserved a better fate at times yesterday. “We’re the type of team that’s going to have to earn respect every single game we play whether it’s a playoff game or not. That’s because we’re the New York Rangers. People just love to hate us.”

The goal in question occurred on a play that has caused numerous problems for the league over the years. In the late 1990s, video review officials were often asked to determine whether a puck was intentionally redirected into the net or had simply accidently deflected. The league found that a player’s “intent” was often impossible to measure, and thus changed the rule book so that all goals redirected off a player’s skate would stand unless the player was seen to use a “distinct kicking motion” to shovel the puck into the net. As a result, over the past several seasons, the only time goals such as Rachunek’s have ever been disallowed are when a player is caught swatting the puck soccer-style with his skate. Even instances wherein a player clearly redirects a puck with intent have been allowed to stand in the absence of a distinct kick.

On Sunday, the league apparently decided to rewrite its rule book on the fly. Daily News‘ John Dellapina provides the following explanation from the NHL:

“The puck didn’t deflect off Rachunek’s skate and in. The pass from Hossa hit Rachunek in the skate … then … Rachunek propels the puck in with his skate,” NHL video director Damian Echevarrieta explained. “You can’t score a goal with your skate unless it hits you in the skate and goes in based on the momentum of the shot or pass. You can’t propel the puck in with your skate.”

The statement is absurd for two reasons. For starters, video replay shows that the puck did indeed deflect off the skate and in. Echevarrieta seems to imply that the puck hit Rachunek’s skate and was sitting there before being shoveled into the net. There is not a single video replay that supports this construction of events. More importantly, the video director’s assertion that a goal can only be propelled by “the momentum of the shot or pass” is in direct contradiction to the rule book, which makes no mention of such criteria. Furthermore, the Sabres scored a goal in Game 1 that deflected of the glove of Jason Pominville and was propelled into the net by the forward’s momentum. In the absence of any distinct punch or motion by Pominville, the goal was allowed to stand after a lengthy video review.

The NHL’s only prayer at credibility would have been to argue that Rachunek’s efforts to stop before crashing into the net constituted a “distinct kicking motion.” It’s a defense that is flimsy at best, but at least consistent with their own rule book.

Said coach Tom Renney on whether or not he thought the puck was distinctly kicked:

“Our video coach made his way to the bench pretty animated. It was not a kicking motion as far as I’m concerned. It has to be a distinct kicking motion, and if that’s distinct, we’re all in trouble.”

It is mind-boggling that a rule that was rewritten to remove subjectivity could be so badly mangled. Had the no-goal been the only element of controversy surrounding the series, the botched review may have faded quietly into the night. Instead, the review should serve as a poster child for the absurd advantage that has been given to the Buffalo Sabres during this postseason. Ranger fans who had labeled their trash-tossing Islander rivals as whiners now know how that fan base felt. The Sabres have now been involved in four goal reviews during these playoffs, all four of which have been ruled in Buffalo’s favor.

The NHL is fortunate that the Rangers pulled out the victory despite the cards that were stacked against them. Had the Blueshirts fallen in overtime, the city and the media would be in a furor today. As it stands, the team is in a 2-1 hole, hoping to get a fair shake at the Garden on Tuesday.

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