Once the Stanley Cup Playoffs arrive, everything gets ratcheted up a notch and even the most minor aspects of the game come under additional scrutiny.
While the postseason pressure may seem to be focused most on the players and coaching staffs of the 16 teams that begin with championship aspirations, another group of individuals feeling it is the officials.
Terry Gregson, an NHL referee from 1981-2004 and the current Senior Vice President and Director of Officiating for the League, was the featured guest on Thursday's "NHL Hour With Gary Bettman," and there was plenty for him to talk about -- specifically, the goal that was disallowed in Game 7 of the Montreal-Washington series on Wednesday, which prevented the Capitals from tying the game early in the third period of what became a stunning 2-1 defeat.
Gregson explained why referee Brad Watson made the correct call in taking away a goal by Alex Ovechkin because teammate Mike Knuble was called for being in the crease and impeding the ability of Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak to stop the puck.
"Brad was very decisive, and as soon as I saw it on the television, from an officiating perspective, I knew it wasn't a good goal and Brad reacted accordingly," Gregson said.
"When we go into each playoff round, we have the series managers discuss things with the coaches and general managers. One area we talk about is protection of the goaltender. And one of the statements we say to the coaches and GMs is that bumping the goalie means the risk of a penalty or a goal being taken away, so make sure your players are aware of the blue ice and allowing the goalie to play his position.
"... The first thing would be the presence in the blue paint -- is that going to allow Halak to make the play? And then when it's on the right-hand side and the contact is there, the arm went up because he felt Halak could not make the play he desired to make."
At one point in the late 1990s, a skate in the crease was automatically enough for a goal to be disallowed, but that is no longer the case. Gregson pointed out that a goal might be scored on a shot from the right point with a player in the left of the crease, but if he does not in any way impede the goalie from making the move he intends to make to stop the puck, the goal is still considered good.
Working the playoffs is considered an honor for referees and linesmen -- only 20 from each group are selected for the first round, and the number dwindles to 12 for the second round, eight for the conference finals and four for the Stanley Cup Final. With assistance from his officiating managers, Gregson rates the officials during the regular season and playoffs, and ultimately makes the final decision as to who merits the right to continue working.
"It's just like the hockey teams -- once you get in the playoffs, it's whoever is performing at their best will continue on," Gregson said. "So the (regular) season gets you into the playoffs and then your performance in the playoffs."
Since he can't be everywhere at once during the playoffs, especially in the first round when there are eight different series going on, Gregson relies on his "series managers" to help make sure he is constantly informed.
"What they do, they are my point of contact in each series," he explained. "We have officiating managers as well as people from Hockey Operations -- in this particular round coming up, we have Kris King, Kay Whitmore, E.J. McGuire from Hockey Operations and Mick McGeough from the officiating department.
"They will be at each series. They begin the series by meeting with the coaches and general managers to tell them what they will be relating to the officials in terms of standard of enforcement, protection of the goaltender, how they want to see the line changes take place, how they want to handle scrums and things like that.
"And then they'll take in feedback from the coaches and general managers so if they have any concerns about any type of situation they may see coming up, then the series managers will go back and meet with the officials. And the series managers are there for each and every game, so they help to relay game intelligence to the referees to prepare them for the game."
Bettman gave Gregson the opportunity to debunk several myths about officiating, one of which is that the League directs the officials to call certain things differently in the playoffs than they would during the regular season.
"Personally, there is nothing ever said or written to say, 'Gentlemen, back off.' The message from me to them is, 'Gentlemen, stay the course.' It's important that we maintain the integrity, because the game is everything, so keep calling the penalties and keep being courageous," Gregson said.
Also discussed was the two-referee system, instituted in the late 90s, and how they have come to work as a tandem. Bettman asked Gregson for a response to a common fan complaint that the referee closest to an infraction may not make the call, but the trailing referee, who might be 50 feet away from the play, raises his arm instead.
"We preach the team concept, and if there's an official out there that sees a foul, let's not say, 'Oh, that's his,' or 'I can't call that because I don't want to upset him.' Whatever it is for the game, you've got to do it," he said.
"There are times when our guys don't react properly and there are other times when they're looking past it and there are times when they're focusing on things other than what's within their immediate vicinity."
Watson heard his share of displeasure from Washington coach Bruce Boudreau on Wednesday night after the disallowed goal -- a common theme for officials when it comes to dealing with coaches, players and fans.
"I always say to people, you have to have a short memory and a good sense of humor to be a referee because you're never going to be anyone's friend," Gregson said. "I think what you want to do is let your work speak for itself and what you want to do is earn their respect as an official."
Gregson even stayed on the show long enough to field a call from a fan curious as to why retiring officials such as Kerry Fraser weren't part of this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs and if it reflected a lack of merit. Gregson said that wasn't the case and it was tradition for outgoing officials to retire at the end of the regular season and not work in the playoffs.