It's round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Boston Bruins are facing the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 2 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Tensions flare early, as Boston winger David Pastrnak collides with Carolina goalie Antti Raanta, knocking him out of the game with a bloody face. Scrums (and more) form at nearly every whistle. At one point, four Bruins players are sitting in the penalty box. Boston lost a player, too, as defenseman Hampus Lindholm exited the game in the second period after absorbing a massive hit from Andrei Svechnikov.
It feels like things could get out of hand at any moment.
This is playoff hockey. Stakes are high, emotions run higher, and the intensity is tangible for players, coaches and fans alike. There's more physicality and more familiarity with the same teams playing night after night. Over the past decade, the NHL reports there has been 45% more hitting in playoff games as compared to regular-season games.
Already this postseason, there have been a handful of controversial cross-checks, a bloody brawl, an ejection and a one-game suspension for boarding, and several goalie interference reviews.
It's the job of the game officials, among their numerous other duties, to keep the lid on all this, preventing the tinderbox from exploding. And all the while, the default chant in hockey arenas throughout North America has become, "Ref, you suck!"
Flashback six weeks. When the NHL's general managers convened in late March for their annual meetings in Florida, commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the group: "It's time to talk about officiating."
It had been a challenging week for the men in stripes, including two apparent missed calls late in Coyotes-Maple Leafs and Oilers-Capitals games, with both directly preceding deciding goals. There was also a feisty news conference from Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog in which he said: "In 11 years, I've never sat and talked about referees in a press conference. But sometimes it's time for players to step up and speak their truth."
According to several people at the March session, Bettman stood at the front of the ballroom at the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa and acknowledged that the league's officiating isn't perfect.
"All of you know," Bettman reasoned with the 32 general managers, "how hard the officials work, how difficult the game is to officiate and how rigorously the officials are critiqued. Concerns about certain calls or situations? My line is always open."
Then, a warning: "If you criticize the officials publicly, you will get fined."
Officiating remains a sensitive topic for the league, and the scrutiny will only grow as the playoffs continue and the intensity ratchets up even higher. Bettman's directive, however, was hardly reactionary. League officials say the commissioner has delivered a version of this speech dozens of times over his 29 years in office. And he'll do it again four times this spring.