Walkom is pleased so far

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:27 AM ET

If there's a way to re-write an unwritten rule, then forget the notion that whistles are put away at playoff time.

What used to be free licence to hack and whack, in the name of do or die, has been curbed. Is it a better game? As long as you have a power-play bonus in your playoff pool.

Penalties per game were averaging 13.4 prior to last night, just under the 14.0 of combined minors and majors through the first round of 2006. But both significantly are ahead of the 10.9 average through the first round of 2004, before the National Hockey League, led by director of officiating Stephen Walkom, got serious about cleaning up obstruction.

Adhering to the rulebook, especially at this time of year, still is a sensitive issue with a lot of players, coaches, fans and media.

"As much as everyone bought in to what we're trying to do, you get people who say 'How can you make that call at this time of year?,'" Walkom said last night in an interview. "We continue to work at changing the mind-set. What is a penalty in the first period is still a penalty in the third. I think if people are (scrutinizing officials), it's because emotions are running really high right now with so much at stake.

"Everything is magnified. But we know that and we expect that."

This has been the most rough-and-tumble first round in years with a number of fights, two suspensions and at least one player taken off on a stretcher.

Walkom isn't saying his 20 referees and 20 linesmen (all of whom were picked based on regular-season grading) are infallible, but believes they've stayed on top of hot-button issues, such as protecting goaltenders.

"That's what we've done all year," Walkom said.

"Do you remember in the old days, before playoffs started, there would be the big announcements from the league that we were cracking down on this or that? And then it would slide."

Walkom said video replay has been a big factor in properly settling disputes.

Sidney Crosby would beg to differ after his Game 1 goal in the Ottawa series was declared to have been kicked in, but only if soccer great Pele had a Penguin on his sweater.

"Give Mike Leggo credit (for disallowing a New York Islanders goal Wednesday night where goalie Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres was judged to have been pushed in with the puck)," Walkom said.

"I watch those reviews, too. I'm pleased that a lot of these calls are being made in real time, not with video."

EASTERN PICTURE CLEARING

With the Ottawa Senators bumping off Pittsburgh last night, the Eastern conference second-round picture will become even more clearer if the Sabres finish off the New York Islanders this evening.

Buffalo would reclaim top seed and play the Rangers, unless Tampa Bay defeats the Devils in their 2-2 series. A New Jersey win sets the Devils up against the Senators, while a Tampa victory sends the Bolts to Buffalo.

POST-SEASONINGS

Maple Leaf prospect Nikolai Kulemin, the much-decorated Russian winger the team was hoping might be available next season, is staying home for 2007-08. "It was a family decision," agent Gary Greenstin said yesterday. "I think he's physically and mentally ready for the NHL and he could be a Calder Trophy candidate. But he's just turning 21 and I must respect a family decision." Kulemin, the Leafs' second-round pick last year, had 38 goals for Magnitogorsk, which just won the Russian league title over Ak-Bars Kazan ... Leafs pro scout Craig Button could join the expanded field of candidates to replace Doug MacLean as general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets ... Jeremy Roenick has been a great addition to TSN's studio playoff panel.


Videos

Photos