Obscure NHL Rules: How the Flyers Had Too Many Men with 5 Skaters

The referees missed yet another call, and nothing happened because of it, so no one will remember it.

Yesterday in the game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers, Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds threw a gloved punch at Ryan McDonagh, earning him a match penalty for intent to injure. This post won't be about whether that call should have been made or whether McDonagh deserved more for a cross-check to the head against Simmonds, but let's talk about what happened at the end of the Simmonds penalty, which you can see in this highlight.

Because Simmonds was assessed a match penalty, he was ejected from the game. Ordinarily, per Rule 21.2 for match penalties, the Flyers would have had to have someone else serve Simmonds' penalty because that's the procedure for match penalties.

The match penalty, plus any additional penalties, shall be served by a player (excluding a goalkeeper) to be designated by the Manager or Coach of the offending team through the playing Captain, such player to take his place in the penalty box immediately.

Emphasis mine. For whatever reason, the Flyers were allowed to continue the game without designating anyone to serve Simmonds' penalty.

That's not the worst offense in this sequence, however. Rule 20.3 under major penalties allows teams to forgo putting a player in the penalty box if the original offender cannot serve his own penalty. So perhaps the officials interpreted the situation under Rule 20 procedures instead of Rule 21.

When a player has been assessed a major penalty and has been removed from the game or is injured, the offending team does not have to place a substitute player on the penalty bench immediately, but must do so at a stoppage of play prior to the expiration of the major penalty. He may then legally exit the penalty bench when the major penalty has expired.

But not only did the officials follow the wrong procedure for enforcing whether a team needed to send a substitute to serve the penalty, they also followed the wrong procedure in the wrong way.

Look again at the video. The highlight begins with the Flyers skating with four players. The Simmonds penalty expired, meaning whoever was in the penalty box for the Flyers was eligible to return to the ice during the play. Which was no one, because no one was in the penalty box at the time the penalty expired. At the expiration of a penalty, players are only allowed to return to the ice from the penalty box. Per Rule 20.3:

Failure to place a player on the penalty bench prior to the expiration of the major penalty will result in that team having to continue playing one player short (but not officially considered shorthanded) until the next stoppage of play. Any replacement player who enters the game other than from the penalty bench shall constitute an illegal substitution under Rule 68 – Illegal Substitution calling for a bench minor penalty.

Emphasis mine. So when the Flyers were on the bench, they saw that the penalty expired, and they counted the number of players they had on the ice. They thought, "Hey, we have only four players, we should get someone else out there." Jakub Voracek took matters into his own hands and went out on the ice himself to make it five skaters for the Flyers, completely unaware that the substitution was illegal. So because the Rangers weren't expecting him to just jump off the bench the way he did — I'm sure the Rangers were just as unaware of the rule as the Flyers were — Voracek started his shift behind all the Rangers players and got a breakaway on Henrik Lundqvist.

It's an obscure rule, but there are reasons for the rule. The match penalty procedure is designed the way it is because players guilty of match penalties will never serve their own penalties; they're ejected from the game, so a replacement player will always have to serve the penalty. For major penalties where the offending player can't serve his penalty, the procedure allows the team to delay naming a replacement player because the penalty will be served in full no matter what, and because the five-minute sentence is an eternity in hockey time. Surely, there will be a chance for the offending team to name a player to sit in the box before the penalty expires.

In this case, the Flyers either forgot to name a player — possible — or they just didn't have much of a chance to — more likely. During the course of the match penalty, there was just one stoppage of play, and it was 1:24 into the infraction. So the Flyers had one chance to name a replacement player to serve the penalty, and they missed it because the next 3:36 of penalty time went uninterrupted. Philadelphia theoretically had to skate with four players at "full strength" until the first stoppage of play after 15:36, when Simmonds' penalty time was up. There are only two points of entry into a hockey game — from the players' bench or from the penalty box — so if someone had to be serving a penalty, the only way he could return is from the penalty box.

It's an obscure rule, but it still requires enforcement. As the play clearly illustrated, allowing a penalized player to return to play from the bench can create an unfair advantage for the team getting a player back from a surprise location on the rink.