Late in the third period Thursday night, the Capitals were protecting a two-goal lead when defenseman Roman Hamrlik was whistled for slashing. That call itself might not have been enough to get the Winnipeg Jets back in the game but a broken-stick call soon after would ultimately change the outcome.
Winnipeg pulled goaltender Ondrej Pavelec to create a 6-on-4 advantage on the power play and with those already-lopsided numbers, Brooks Laich blocked a shot by Dustin Byfuglien just inside the Capitals’ blueline.
Laich turned to retrieve the loose puck, fighting off Byfuglien in the process, and sent a centering pass to a teammate in order to try to clear the puck out of the zone. As he made that play, Laich didn’t realize that his stick was broken from blocking the shot.
“If you have a couple seconds you can check [the stick] out,” Laich said. “In a bang-bang play it’s pretty -- especially with four minutes left already down 6-on-4 -- it’s pretty tough to take a second to check your stick when a puck’s up for [grabs].”
With the exception of goaltenders, players are not allowed to use a broken stick on the ice. Laich went to the penalty box, creating a two-man advantage for the Jets, who made it a 6-on-3 with Pavelec still on the visiting bench.
Karl Alzner, whose stick would later break on a deflection that caused Winnipeg’s second goal, explained how difficult it is for a player to notice that their stick is broken unless it has snapped in half.
“It’s hard to tell, it’s not like the stick is an extension of your body,” Alzner said. “You feel that it’s intact in the handle, you don’t know it’s broken down below and it’s your first instinct to play the puck no matter what’s going on with your stick.”
Only 10 seconds remained in the original penalty to Hamrlik when a scramble broke out in front of the Capitals’ crease. Alzner pushed Bryan Little into Tomas Vokoun, tying the goaltender up, and no one could get back to prevent Evander Kane from putting Winnipeg on the board as a puck lay unprotected in front.
That tally made it 2-1 and would be the catalyst for the Jets’ comeback at Verizon Center en route to a 3-2 shootout win. (More on the second goal to come.)
Laich, though noticeably displeased, remained diplomatic after the game and wouldn’t comment on the officiating or the merits of the penalty. “I’m not going to comment on the call,” he said. “Officials don’t want to be a factor in the game. They try their best.”
Some of Laich’s teammates didn’t mask their irritation at the call.
“I don’t know how to say, I don’t think it was penalty on Brooksie,” Alex Ovechkin said. “He don’t see stick was broken. I got couple blocked shots with my stick and I still play with my broken stick and I didn’t have a call. It’s pretty tough loss for us, I don’t think we deserved to lose. We deserved to win today.”
Troy Brouwer and Alzner alluded to the possibility that the penalty on Laich was a make-up call of sorts.
“A tough call, we feel,” Brouwer said. “A stick breaks, a guy doesn’t know it breaks and he plays the puck. He’s just doing what any guy in the NHL would do. Maybe it was because of a prior incident, but we got the call against us and any time you’re down 6-on-3 it’s pretty tough.”
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