BOSTON — With his St. Louis Blues leading the Boston Bruins by a goal midway through the third period of a pivotal game in a tied Stanley Cup finals, Tyler Bozak tripped Noel Acciari.
This is indisputable.
Bozak whacked his stick at Acciari’s skate, then struck his leg, and Acciari recoiled, falling backward as if stricken by whiplash, his head slamming the ice.
Normal circumstances do not exist in the N.H.L. playoffs, where officiating errors and controversies have roiled every round, but if they did, the nearest official would have blown his whistle, play would have stopped and Bozak would have been penalized.
What unfolded instead was a sequence that resulted in David Perron’s decisive goal in a 2-1 victory that escorted the Blues to the verge of their first Stanley Cup in their 52-year history — which they can clinch as soon as Game 6 on Sunday night in St. Louis — and that resulted in chaos in all other corners of TD Garden.
Cam Neely, the Bruins’ president, hurled a water bottle. Enraged fans flung debris onto the ice. Acciari knelt in the face-off circle as the Blues celebrated a few feet behind him.
Not long after, Bruins Coach Bruce Cassidy launched into a screed that condemned the postseason officiating as a “black eye” on the league. He called Bozak’s ploy, which sent Acciari into the league’s concussion protocol, “egregious.”
“Their player is on his way to the box; it’s right in front of the official,” Cassidy said. “It’s a slew foot. Our guy’s gone. The spotter took him out of the game for a possible concussion. I mean, it’s blatant. It had a big effect on the game.”
On a night that overshadowed the return of their captain, Zdeno Chara, not even 72 hours after he reportedly sustained a broken jaw, the Bruins, too, bemoaned missing a couple — more than a couple, really — of the 39 shots that reached Blues goalie Jordan Binnington.
Even as players sanitized their fury by professing that they didn’t lose because of the officials’ oversight, they were mystified that it happened at all, to them, at such a critical moment.
“That’s a penalty every time — there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” defenseman Torey Krug said. “I’m all for letting us play, but when it leads to scoring chances and the opposing team ends up with the puck, it should be going our way.”
The Game 5 referees, Steve Kozari and Kelly Sutherland, also worked the Bruins’ 4-2 victory in Game 1, when they had five power plays, and their 7-2 victory in Game 3, when they scored four times on the man advantage. The next day, Blues Coach Craig Berube complained about a perceived imbalance, implying that he hoped players would be afforded more leeway in what has become a nasty, physical series.
“We play a hard game, we’re a physical team, we forecheck hard,” he said. “I’ll say it again: We’re the least penalized team in the playoffs. End of story. I don’t need to talk anymore about it.”
He shouldn’t have had to talk about it at all. As soon as Bozak upended Acciari, he held his palms out to his sides, as if expecting a whistle, acknowledging his mistake and pleading for absolution all at once.
“I honestly don’t know,” Bozak said. “It’s a fast game out there. I couldn’t tell. I was just battling for the puck.”
The league said it does not respond to “judgment calls” during games.
“There are hundreds of judgment calls in every game,” said Stephen Walkom, the league’s director of officiating. “The official on the play, he viewed it and he didn’t view it as a penalty at the time.”
There is no replay mechanism in place to review the noncall, and even as the N.H.L. grapples with similar problems plaguing other sports seeking to adjudge every play correctly, it would appear that there is room to expand to account for a missed penalty that leads to a goal. Speaking before the series, Commissioner Gary Bettman said league officials would continue to discuss potential alterations to the replay rules, mindful not to disturb a game’s pace and flow.
Any changes would be little consolation to the Vegas Golden Knights, who were given an unmerited five-minute penalty in Game 7 of the first round that fueled the San Jose Sharks’ third-period comeback. Or to the Colorado Avalanche, whose tying goal in Game 7 of the second round against San Jose was negated by an offside call that seemed to violate the spirit of the rule. Or the Blues, who endured an illegal hand pass that led to the Sharks’ overtime win in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
“What I thought was it would be good if I kept my head from exploding,” Bettman said. “I was unhappy. We all were.”
The Blues channeled their frustration and unleashed it on the Sharks, paddling them by a combined score of 12-2 to win the next three games.
“Obviously, stuff’s going to happen in the playoffs,” Binnington said. “It’s how you handle the adversity. It was a key moment for us.”
The Bruins were fortunate to regain Chara, a 6-foot-9 defenseman who left Game 4 after taking a puck to the mouth. Wearing a protective cage, he played almost 17 minutes, blocking three shots, and was on the ice for the Blues’ first goal, when he and Charlie McAvoy looped below the goal line, allowing Ryan O’Reilly to collect a pass in front of the net and roof a backhander.
Perhaps on Sunday Boston will get back defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, who is nearing medical clearance after a Game 2 head injury. His puck-moving prowess can aid in neutralizing the Blues’ vicious forecheck.
But it is Boston’s capacity for compartmentalizing that will help determine whether the series returns to TD Garden for a Game 7. On Sunday, the same day Berube griped about the Blues’ penalties, Cassidy said his team had no issues: “We’re not going to concern ourselves with the officials until they stink and they go against us, right?”
That time has come. And unless the Bruins win the next two games, they will be lamenting how they didn’t win this one.