Ah, officiating. Is there anything sports fans bitch and moan about more? Officiating draws more anger, disgust, and frustration from normally even-keeled individuals than taxes, the weather, and Oscar/Emmy/Grammy results all rolled together. (Seriously, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is up for Best Picture? And don’t get me started on the unwarranted praise heaped upon Modern Family. Err, I digress.) Officiating boils our blood because, when mistakes are deemed to be made, good efforts from your team’s players go for naught. Mistakes from the other side get wiped away. The game, as it were, is taken out of the hands of the players and put into the obviously-completely-overpaid-and-incompetent hands of a dude dressed like a prison guard.
The thing about officiating is that it’s absolutely impossible to judge the job officials do when you’re partial to one team. Maybe others are different, but I find it nearly impossible to watch a sporting event without rooting for one side or the other. If “my” teams aren’t playing, I root based on the standings, for the teams that have already played “my” teams (yes, that does mean BC this year in basketball, don’t shoot me), for the teams with the most likable players or who are playing the villains of the sport in question, and when all else fails, the underdog. To varying extents, for better or for worse, I get attached to the game. And when you’re attached to the game, to one team or the other, you see the game in a different light, and borderline calls become egregious oversights or pointed slights one way or the other. Obviously, the extent varies from “(shaking head in disbelief as LeBron takes five steps on his game-winning layup against some last-place team)” to “WHAT THE FUCK HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY CALL GOALIE INTERFERENCE WHEN HE GOT PUSHED INTO THE GOALIE AND YOU EVEN CALLED THE PENALTY FOR PUSHING HIM INTO THE GOALIE?!!!!!” based on who’s playing. But you have to be real detached from what’s going on to see things with no bias whatsoever.
Now, having said all of that, let’s not sit here and pretend the officiating wasn’t a factor in Friday night’s home loss (home what-now?!) to Lowell for the Minutemen. I’ve seen officiating crews get jeered jokingly from fans skating onto the ice. I’ve never seen an entire arena stand up and boo as loudly as they did Friday night as the zebras skated onto the ice to start the second and third periods. I could rehash the harsh words of our triangular colleague or even mild-mannered Craig Finn lookalike slash veteran hockey beat writer Dick Baker’s even more sternly-worded column (protip: it’s much more fun if you read it in Finn’s voice), but you know the score: UMass rushes out to a 1-0 lead and an 8-0 shots advantage, Lowell gets four power plays in the period (of which one was definitely a good call, one could’ve gone either way, and the other two were as real as Rick Santorum’s election chances), and it’s all downhill from there. Some of the Lowellier of Lowell fans will sit there and mock all they want, but when even their complete homer-to-end-all-homers play-by-play announcer is expressing surprise at some of the calls and – more importantly – the non-calls the other way, something has to be up, no?
But, y’see, here’s the thing – in spite of it all, UMass had a chance to win this game. They trailed 3-2 with plenty of time to go in the third, put a couple goals past Doug Carr (finally), and, in the rare stretches of even-strength play that were to be found, they dominated play for large stretches of time. What better middle finger to the fates than to pull out a game in which the other team had seven power plays to your two? Nope. The Minutemen couldn’t even get out of their own zone for the final minute of the game to pull their goalie, then let in a bad rebound goal to seal the deal instead. And, as the three-sided one predicted, the mental collapse carried over to the next night, in a 5-2 loss that, while not without a few disagreeable calls, was lost single-handedly by bad UMass decision-making.
Good teams fight through the bullshit. If they’re only playing well at even strength, they make the most of that even-strength time and worry about killing the penalties when they have the lead. You know what didn’t come from a call? The giveaway that led to Lowell’s go-ahead 2-1 goal that really took a lot of the life out of the building. The fact of the matter is, even after one of the night’s worst calls – Phillips going for a “boarding” call in the final five minutes on a play where his man fell down virtually untouched in front of him – the Minutemen had over two minutes left to do something with the post-penalty-kill momentum. They did not. They ran out of gas, despite having a week off while Lowell played its fourth game in eight days. And then they did the same the next night, after storming back to tie a game at 2.
And so here we are, with UMass fighting for its playoff life yet again. Look, Lowell’s got a damn good team this year, but UMass had a chance to pull even (ahead with the tiebreaker) if things had rolled a little differently. But it’s our job as fans to get mad about the calls. It’s the players’ job to find a way to win in spite of them, and definitely to shake frustration off. The Minutemen did neither, and lost Friday and Saturday for those respective reasons. They’ve got a chance to turn things right back around this weekend with their juiciest chance yet at a road win (Northeastern) and another big home game against a ranked team (Merrimack, whom they played extremely close twice last year and, err, we’re not sure what happened in the other game, maybe it got canceled?).
A good showing next weekend and we can chalk Lowell’s sweep up to the fact that they’re the better team this year, plain and simple. But if this turns out to be the beginning of the end, the Minutemen have nobody to blame but themselves.
(And maybe Hansen. But mostly themselves.)