Playing it too safe: NHL refs changing games by overreacting to big hits

By now, if you're a fan of hockey in the slightest, you've noticed a glaring initiative by officials to protect the game's players. Concussion awareness and player safety have been hot-button issues for years ever since devastating injuries to Marc Savard and Sidney Crosby.

But as hard as the league has been coming down on players for hitting players in defenseless positions, or targeting the head, it would seem as though the officials have even more at stake. Or at least that's how they're calling games.

The quick-triggered referees are having as big an impact on the outcome of games as ever in an attempt to erase these hits from our game. Match penalties are being given out with alarming frequency, and in some cases are even being rescinded later that evening.

Andrew Desjardins' hit on Jamal Mayers in last night's Blackhawks-Sharks game is a fine example of this. Following a scrap that ensued with Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith, Desjardins was given a match penalty for this: 

Desjardins hit a player with the puck, did not target the head and did not leave his feet but was given a five-minute match penalty for a hit to the head. During the four-on-four play that followed, Patrick Kane scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal. After the game, the league removed the match penalty to Desjardins. 

If Desjardins was not given a match penalty, the Sharks would've had a power play due to Keith's instigator penalty.

That call came just five days after David Backes took a five-minute major in the third period of a tie game for a textbook hit to the chest of Detroit defenseman Kent Huskins:

Yeah, five minutes for that. Backes clearly targets the chest and knocks the wind out of Huskins, but also received a five-minute match penalty for targeting the head. Detroit scored on the power play, breaking a 3-3 tie, and won the game.

At what point is the safety of players taking away the overall product? Well, that would've been a good question to ask three years ago. The pressure coming from the league offices to use penalties as a deterrent to these big hits has been taken to another level.

To err on the side of player safety is one thing, and a forgivable mistake in most cases that many would make excuses for. However, this is an epidemic among referees and there's no discernable cure in sight.