ST. LOUIS -- The four officials huddled by the penalty box. Most of the San Jose Sharks had retreated to the dressing room, believing that Erik Karlsson's goal at 5:23 of overtime had given them a Game 3 win and a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference finals. None of the St. Louis Blues had left the bench or the ice, believing there was absolutely no chance these officials could have missed the hand pass by the Sharks' Timo Meier that led to that goal.
But they did.
All four of them missed it, marking another blown call in a postseason that has been defined by refereeing controversies and officiating errors. Since the NHL's video review process doesn't include hand passes that lead to goals, the Sharks were victorious. And the Blues were irate.
"I really didn't get an explanation other than, I guess, there's a different set of rules for two different teams, so I'm sure they'll lose some sleep tonight after looking at it," St. Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo said Wednesday night after the Blues' 5-4 loss to San Jose, which left them standing on the bench dumbfounded -- at least the ones who weren't on the ice smashing their sticks in anger.
Just over five minutes into overtime, Meier slid to the ice, waving his stick at the puck. It deflected off St. Louis defenseman Colton Parayko and bounced in the air, then off Meier's chest -- and then he swatted it with his right glove. Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester kicked out his leg to stop it, but it trickled to Gustav Nyquist, who fed the puck to Karlsson for a shot that went past goalie Jordan Binnington.
The Sharks celebrated and the Blues swarmed the officials. Binnington flipped his catching glove up and down to signify that he saw a hand pass. The Blues remained on their bench and on the ice. The remaining Sharks skated to the dressing room after the officials indicated that the goal would stand.
Binnington slammed his stick in anger. Brayden Schenn did the same, breaking it on the end boards. Numerous Blues players waved their arms on the bench in disbelief. But the officials left the ice, under the cover of a canopy that protected them from the cups and cans that began littering the rink from the enraged fans at Enterprise Center, who by then had seen multiple replays of the hand pass on the giant video screen.
In the bowels of the arena, loud displays of anger could be heard. St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong slammed his hand on the door of the officials' dressing room, yelling that the decision was "f---ing garbage."
What did Karlsson see on the play?
"We weren't playing handball, were we?" he said after the game. "We were playing hockey. We deserved to win this game. At the end of the day, I think neither team drew the shorter stick on any of the calls. Fair game."
The Blues said they received no explanation for the call from the officials. Was it a hand pass?
"What do you guys think?" St. Louis coach Craig Berube asked the media during his postgame news conference.
A few reporters said, "Yes."
"Then don't ask me," he said. "There's no reason to ask me. ... I've got nothing to say about it."
In an official statement, the NHL said: "Plays of this nature are not reviewable. A hand pass that goes into the net can be reviewed, but a hand pass between teammates cannot be reviewed."
A pool reporter caught up with Kay Whitmore, the NHL's supervisor of officials for the series, and asked whether any of the officials saw the hand pass.
"What [did they tell] me? It's a non-reviewable play. You can read between the lines. You can figure out what you want. You watched the video. But it's just non-reviewable. I know that sounds like a cop-out answer, but that's the truth," Whitmore said.
Could the NHL's "War Room" in Toronto have stepped in on a critical goal such as this?
"The way the rules are written, any chance there is to review, everything is reviewed that's reviewable," Whitmore said. "But as the rules currently stand, the play is non-reviewable."
As with many other calls this postseason, the discussion quickly shifted to whether replay should be expanded to include this kind of play.
"We're going to go there, eh?" said David Perron of the Blues. "Yeah, it's a hand pass. The league's going to take care of it as they have throughout the playoffs."
Sharks coach Peter DeBoer passed the buck.
"That's for [commissioner] Gary Bettman and GMs. That's not for Pete DeBoer. I'm a coach. You want to ask me about the game?" he said.
The rest of the game seemed secondary to the call in overtime, but it was a tremendous rally by the Sharks.
After San Jose built a 2-0 lead in the first period, the second period will go down as one of the postseason's wildest. The Blues' Alexander Steen scored at 1:18 on a hard-fought feed from Ivan Barbashev. Joe Thornton scored his second of the game just 18 seconds later. Vladimir Tarasenko rocketed in his first goal since Game 4 against the Dallas Stars to cut it to 3-2. Perron fired one past Martin Jones at close range to tie it, then scored again from just inside the blue line with Brent Burns in the box for hooking -- one of only two penalties in regulation -- for a 4-3 lead at 18:42. That broke an 0-for-18 streak on the power play for St. Louis that dated to Game 3 of the Dallas series.
It did not, however, break the Sharks. They peppered Binnington with quality chances, and the rookie goaltender stood tall in the third. But playoff pluck is found throughout both of these rosters, and the Sharks' most reliable postseason paladin struck again: Logan Couture, heretofore held in check in Game 3, tucked a puck past Binnington's pad on the doorstep with Jones pulled at 18:59 of the third. Couture now has 20 points and 14 goals to lead the playoffs.
"I think it's one of those playoffs runs we'll look back at years down the road and say, wow, what a competitor, what a leader. But when you're in the heat of the moment, he's just doing what he does," said DeBoer, who also praised the play of Jones in making 15 saves in the third period and overtime.
The Blues attempted to turn the page quickly in their locker room, and that was the message echoed from the coach.
"It's difficult to lose in overtime, the playoffs, anytime. You've got to move on. The team's got to move on. We've all got to move on from it and get ready for Game 4. Really, that's all you can do," Berube said. "We played a solid hockey game, but we were on the losing side of it. And there's nothing we can do about what happened. We've just got to move on."
That "hey, things happen" vibe also was found in the jubilant Sharks room.
"You know what? There's a few calls you're going to get. You're not going to get certain ones. Everyone keeps talking about the hand pass, so there must have been something there, but at the end of the day, there are calls that go both ways. That's the playoffs. There's adversity. You gotta adjust, handle it, keep your cool," San Jose captain Joe Pavelski said.
"If you get the extra call, great. Just keep playing. They're not trying to screw anybody. They really aren't. They're good guys," Pavelski said of the officials. "May not always seem that way, but tonight, we may have caught a break. But there were a lot of breaks going both ways all night, all series."
One can't help but note the enormity of the breaks that have gone the Sharks' way. In Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights in the opening round, the Sharks were given a five-minute major they shouldn't have received, rallied with four goals in the third period and then won in overtime.
The NHL apologized to Vegas for that botched call. It remains to be seen whether the Blues will receive a similar mea culpa before Game 4.