First things first. No matter what the NHL ultimately decides happened in the final seconds of Wednesday night's Los Angeles Kings-Columbus Blue Jackets' game - human error or genuine mischief - the result stands. Los Angeles is a 3-2 regulation winner, earning two points in the standings and denying the Blue Jackets any. For Columbus, it won't matter. They'll be 30th, no matter what. L.A.? Well, a different story.
The Kings, who earned the controversial victory on Drew Doughty's power-play goal with four tenths of a second left on the clock, are squarely in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race, where six points separated six teams vying for the final three spots prior to the game, L.A. now a solid No. 7 with 60 points.
Here's what happened. The Jackets' Sami Pahlsson took a holding penalty with 66 seconds to go in regulation. With time running out, Doughty drifted into the high slot and fired a shot that went in just before time expired.
If you watch the clock in the top corner of the screen, it pauses fractionally at 1.8 seconds and then runs down. The difference - about a second and a half, according to the estimate from Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards - is the difference between a legal goal and one scored after the clock ran out. The NHL is investigating what happened, but if you had to make an educated guess, you'd figure the timekeeper paused the clock for a heartbeat and then let it run down. This one time, that heartbeat turned out to be just enough time for the Kings to post a regulation win - as opposed to having to take their chances in overtime.
"Something happened and it's really disappointing because I thought our guys battled and worked hard," said Richards post-game, noting "Well, I don't have anything official, any official report. Watching the replay and talking with our producer who runs our show, the clock stopped at 1.8 seconds, and it stopped for 1.5 seconds, and they scored with 0.5 seconds.
Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson who wasn't at the game - he was attending the top prospects game in Kelowna - investigated further; thought there was something fishy going on; and called it to the NHL's attention. Howson made a number of good points on a blog posted on the Blue Jackets' website, but the most significant one speaks to the integrity of the league and how this single result could have an impact on the Western Conference playoff race, or at the very least, Western Conference playoff match-ups .
Of course, the greatest impact would be on the teams clustered around the Kings in the standings - the San Jose Sharks, who lead the Pacific Division and currently two points up in the battle for a guaranteed top-three seed, and the ones chasing the Kings in the standings: the Minnesota Wild, the Colorado Avalanche, the Dallas Stars, the Calgary Flames and the Phoenix Coyotes.
You can tell how this issue has galvanized the league because the Flames issued a statement Thursday morning, with GM Jay Feaster essentially saying 'no use crying over spilled milk': "It is our understanding the NHL is already investigating this matter. Moreover, as Colin Campbell was quoted as saying, once the game is over it is over. There is nothing the NHL is going to do, or can do, to correct the situation if, indeed, there was a mistake made in that game. Rather than crying over what happened in a game in which we did not take part, our time and energies are devoted to our own team and doing everything we can to win the games we play and in so doing qualify for the post-season. We sincerely believe that is a much better and more efficient use of our time and effort."
Time-keeping is one of those subjects that rarely gets discussed until there's a controversy, but anybody watching the final few seconds of a close game will be familiar with this situation:
You watch the defensive team ice the puck. The opposing player races back to touch up, and a few precious tenths of a second disappear off the clock as the whistle blows. The referee then skates to the time keeper's bench and invariably, a few extra ticks are put back on the clock. Happens every day - like clockwork, one might even say.
And if it happens all the time in the dying seconds, you'd have to think that a few precious tenths disappear every time there's an icing call, which speaks to the human factor and the imprecise nature of the timing in every one of the 1,230 games played in the NHL.
So it's a can of worms for the NHL and even if an anonymous off-ice official loses his job over it, it won't change the final result, which is that the Kings are credited with a point in a game which they may or may not have earned.
And if the Western Conference playoff race goes down to the wire the way it did last season, and somebody misses out by a point, the events of Feb. 1 in L.A. will not be easy for some close-but-no-cigar also-ran to swallow.
Or to forget.