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Officiating crews serve one of the most underappreciated jobs in college hockey. Make one bad call and a crowd turns on them. Miss another one and even more are up in arms. None of that matters, though, if they can keep the game on an even keel and keep players safe.

The officials failed to do any of that for Michigan and Ohio State in Saturday’s game.

From the first period on, both teams let the emotions of the rivalry get the best of them. After Friday’s spirited game, they came out laying heavy and often late hits that set an immediate physical tone. Just one play can turn that kind of game ugly. 

That’s exactly what happened on Saturday.

In the first period, freshman forward Mark Estapa skated close to the Buckeyes’ goaltender Jakub Dobeš after a save, prompting a lengthy scrum between Estapa, sophomore forward Brendan Brisson, and a collection of Ohio State skaters.

Without calling any penalties on the play, the officials let those emotions build up. Soon, Buckeyes’ forward Kamil Sadlocha got into a spirited exchange with senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg, one that saw the duo tussle on the ice before the linesmen could break them up. After Blankenburg’s helmet was broken on the play, the officials made a call to get the game back on track:

“Blankenburg, two minutes for face masking.”

Without offsetting penalties to tell both teams to simmer down, the officials left players to take the rulebook into their own hands. Whether it was Ohio State defenseman James Marooney getting called for boarding on the kind of hit allowed earlier in the game or blatant head contact by Michigan freshman defenseman Ethan Edwards being called only a minor, the officials kept moving the boundaries of what could and couldn’t happen in the game.

The result: A de facto wrestling match in which 99 penalty minutes were handed out. The total, to be frank, should’ve been higher.

“You watch that game and you have NHL referees, there’s probably 50 penalties — no kidding — 50 penalties on Ohio State,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Until we start at the top, it changes and how we’re going to call the game, you’re going to get this.”

The problem certainly came from both teams, which Pearson admitted:

“We’re not angels either,” he added.

A physical game is necessary, perhaps even beneficial to the sport as teams try to defend rushes. But when the NCAA prides itself on protecting players and promoting a skilled game, Saturday’s performance stood in the face of its intentions.

In the third period, senior forward Jimmy Lambert whacked Buckeyes’ defenseman Cam Thiesing with his stick after a late hit, Thiesing laid a nasty crosscheck on Lambert. The officials could’ve shut down any future scrums by sending them both off the ice. Instead, their non-calls set a tone of revenge.

By the end of the period, four misconducts sent players out of the game as they brawled to get even. It was an embarrassment to the game the NCAA wants to foster.

Officials have to keep games from turning into a gloved fist fight. It drags skilled teams down into the muck that college hockey has tried to distance itself from. When skaters charge the net and fight on top of goaltenders, they don’t exist.

How long until the NCAA steps in to draw a line in the sand, preventing Saturday’s outcome from reoccurring?

When Ohio State forward Patrick Guzzo jostled the linesman that tried to pull him away from a fight, I had flashbacks to the minor league, enforcer-filled brawls of hockey’s past. I remembered watching grown men throw knuckles at each other in bench-clearing brawls.

Add in Ohio State forward Joe Dunlap’s antics of throwing his arms in the air after the Buckeyes’ sixth goal and a massive brawl, and it looked a lot like those same low-skill, dangerous games from 10 years ago.

And if the NCAA doesn’t start calling games correctly early on, that’s the kind of game it’s going to turn into.