Fraser: Penalty shot standards and the NHL playoffs

Kerry Fraser
5/4/2012 3:27:52 PM
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Got a question on rule clarification, comments on rule enforcements or some memorable NHL stories? Kerry Fraser wants to answer your emails at!

Hey Kerry,

Love the column and just finished reading your book - excellent stories!
My question pertains to the (non) calling of penalty shots in the playoffs. Am I the only one who's noticed a handful of times where it seems like what would have been a guaranteed penalty shot during the regular season gets backed off and called as a two-minute minor? I'm sure you wouldn't have to look very hard to find at least three or four video clips just from the first round and a half. As with anything, consistency is crucial - if it's a penalty shot in Game 34 of the regular season, it needs to be one in a 2-1 game in the second round of the playoffs. Is there somewhat of a tighter standard being applied, or are we just seeing refs who want to "let the players decide the outcome?"

Thanks, and keep up the good work.

Hi Brent:

Since you recently finished reading my book I am sure that you couldn't help but gather that my wife, Kathy, is my #1 fan. In spite of demonstrating a wife's blind loyalty at times I can also tell you she is a very knowledgeable hockey fan; never afraid to tell me when she thought I messed up a call on the ice! Kathy is also a fan of C'mon Ref and reads the column and bloggers comments on a daily basis. (She's not afraid to tell me when she thinks I'm off the mark here as well! Oh how I love that woman's honesty...)

When I received your question today Brent, in addition to ones previously submitted and ongoing bloggers' comments, Kathy was prompted to say, "I wonder if anyone in the League hierarchy recognizes just how knowledgeable the majority of hockey fans really are?" I sure hope somebody pays attention because you folks ask some great questions and offer unique insights into the game. Keep 'em coming.

The purpose of the penalty shot rule is to restore a reasonable scoring opportunity which has been lost through various criteria. The penalty shot is an exciting element of the game and has fans on their feet whenever it is called; which when I started in the mid-1970's very seldom occurred. In that era the referee suffered considerable abuse from players, coaches and fans when he demonstrated the "courage" to award a penalty shot.

Rather than subject himself to the excessive abuse that always followed a penalty shot call the ref most often assessed a two-minute minor penalty. It was a safer, easier call to make and generally more accepted by all game participants of the day.

That mindset changed for me on February 11, 1982 in the Joe Louis Arena when I called two penalty shots against the home team Red Wings in the third period as they played host to Harry Neale's Vancouver Canucks. The second penalty shot was called with Detroit leading by the score of 4-3 with 30 seconds remaining in the game when Wings captain Reed Larson chopped down Stan Smyl from behind on a breakaway.

My colleague at TSN, Marc Crawford, played in that game and we reminisced recently in studio how since Smyl was injured on the play, Neale selected Czech star Ivan Hlinka to take the shot. Harry told me years later that his instruction to Hlinka was if he didn't score on the shot to skate right out of the end of the Joe Louis Arena all the way back to Czechoslovakia! Hlinka scored to tie the game and from that point everything that wasn't nailed down in the seats rained down onto the ice in my direction. After the final 30 seconds played out, Larson launched a 30-yard uncompleted pass with a water bottle. My head was the intended receiver and Reed was assessed a misconduct for the attempt. I nearly had to fight my way out of the building when it was time to exit.

It was a pretty wild experience but the first olive was out of the jar so to speak. More penalty shots were assessed by me and my colleagues in following years. (I called six the following season.) The League recognized the excitement and entertainment value the fans derived when this call was legitimately made. As years passed the criteria required for calling a penalty shot was loosened as the NHL wanted more of these calls to be made by the referees.

Let me explain some of the major differences:

- Previously a player had to be over the centre red line (currently just in the neutral or attacking zone beyond his own blue line);

- A player had to have possession and control of the puck (currently he can be chasing a loose puck that the ref determines the player could have obtained possession and control of prior to being fouled from behind with no one to pass but the goalkeeper.)   

- The player in possession and control (or, in the judgment of the Referee, the player clearly would have obtained possession and control of the puck) must have been denied a reasonable chance to score.

- The fact that the player got a shot off does not automatically eliminate this play from the penalty shot consideration criteria. If the foul was from behind and the player was denied a "more" reasonable scoring opportunity due to the foul, then the penalty shot should still be awarded.

I don't think there is much to read between the lines here; the League prefers that a penalty shot be called when a player with no one to pass but the goalkeeper is fouled from behind! (The player fouled doesn't even have to have the puck in his possession!)

It is difficult to imagine how a player fouled from behind - as he is taking a shot - would not be denied a "more reasonable chance to score." During the regular season the penalty shot has become the easier and expected call for the referees to make.

So what is different in the playoffs? I, like you Brent, have seen where I would have expected the referee to call a penalty shot but instead assessed a minor. The rule hasn't changed nor has the criteria under which the referee(s) judge the play.

What has changed is the pressure and focus of every call made in a playoff game that often results in some form of criticism. Refs don't want the focus to shift in their direction. As such, the "judgment" the refs demonstrate is more finite as to whether a player is fouled directly from behind or on an angle from behind/side and in determining if a "reasonable" scoring opportunity resulted.

To some extent perhaps the ref's mindset is tilted backward in time. There might be an initial protest from a player that feels he should have received a penalty shot but not too many teams will complain for long about receiving a two-minute power play.  A half a loaf is better than none at all!

Something that I find really interesting from a penalty acceptance level from everyone involved in the game is when the puck is shot over the glass by a player in his defending zone. No one ever complains about this penalty unless on rare occasions the officials get it wrong; such last night when Ilya Kovalchuk's clearing shot deflected off Matt Read's stick shaft. To this point in the playoffs there have been 24 delay of game penalties called for puck over the glass. On Thursday night in two games, three such penalties were called. One of two that the Devils received occurred in OT!

Nobody says a word because it is not only expected, it is automatic. The only thing for the official to judge is if the puck deflected prior to exiting the playing surface and into/over the seats. The player immediately hangs his head as soon as the puck goes over the glass and skates to the penalty when the whistle blows.

Here's a thought for you all to respond to. While you accept the delay of game penalty, what would your reaction be if a referee called a restraining penalty in overtime; say holding, interference, hooking or tripping on your team? What about a more aggressive foul such as boarding, goalie interference or a single roughing penalty in a scrum where one player punches the other in the head? How would you feel about one of those?

Next let me ask you to put aside your role as a fan and consider the ramifications if you are now the referee. You have the decision to make on a play to either call a penalty shot in overtime (versus a minor penalty) or nothing? Some of you will say that's what they get paid for and you are right. Other will give it some deep thought and reflect on the emotion, the intensity and how a call of that nature might affect you personally. You've got the weekend to think about the call and not just a millisecond on the ice. I'm anxious to read your final call!

Some might just prefer if the puck was shot over the glass at this point. That would be an easy call to make with very little thought.

After all, it's automatic!

Have a great weekend and enjoy the games.

For a personally autographed copy of Final Call from TSN hockey analyst and former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, visit The Book Keeper website.

For a regular copy of Final Call from TSN hockey analyst and former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, visit here.

Kerry Fraser

Kerry Fraser

Kerry Fraser is an analyst for the NHL on TSN and That's Hockey 2Nite on TSN2. As one of the league's most recognizable senior referees, he's worked 1,904 NHL regular season games and 261 playoff games during his 37-year career.

Got a question on rule clarification, comments on rule enforcements or some memorable NHL stories? Kerry wants to answer your emails at!

You can also follow Kerry Fraser on Twitter at @kfraserthecall!

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