Ok, here's the thing. The video of the Rangers player baiting Hillen into a penalty was taken down, and that was my main example of what I want to talk about. I'll try to explain what I saw from memory, and I guess you'll have to trust that I'm not making it up.
Rangers player peeks around and sees no refs looking, swings a chicken wing at Hillen.
Now. Is it "legal" to deliberately take a swing at someone when the refs aren't looking, knowing you won't get caught? I would say yes, if you don't actually make contact so video reviews don't get you suspended, that is the way things work in the real world. The refs can only call what they see. Should the refs be making every attempt possible to see everything all the time? Sure. Are they responsible if a player catches them looking somewhere else before deliberately provoking someone? No.
What would, say, Avery do if someone did this to him? He would scream as if shot in the gonads and crumple to the ice as loudly as possible, attracting attention of the refs. What he would NOT do is retaliate, which is exactly what the Rangers player wants you to do.
So Hillen retaliates, and the ref shrugs it off - "Oh, I must have missed something." Then Hillen retaliates AGAIN. Ref HAS to call it. Rangers won this exchange.
To me, that's a legit playoff hockey play, which you do precisely to draw a penalty. Hillen totally fell for it.
So why did the penalties go 5-0 in the Rangers favor in game 6? I posit that part of the Rangers' game plan was to leverage the typical home ice advantage you get from the refs and bait the Caps into as many penalties as possible. Since they were deliberately waiting until the refs' backs were turned, OF COURSE there were no penalties called. They are also a disciplined team that showed during the regular season that they are capable of playing without committing penalties. The Caps are not -- they committed a few penalties they shouldn't, and also got baited into a few extra penalties as well.
The Caps fell for the Rangers' provocative tactics hook, line, and sinker. Taking a loud dive after a provocative, refs-backs-turned chicken wing isn't embellishment. It's how you show your opponent that they are not getting into your head. The Caps did the opposite, coming apart at the seams in game 7 and whining afterwards about the biased officiating.
In playoff hockey (as in life), there are predators and prey, and the Rangers were the predators in this series. Now I'm not sure this is entirely true, but I strongly suspect that the biased penalty outcome of the series was not the Refs' fault, but rather a result of a successful tactic employed by the Rangers to take advantage of the Caps' mental weakness.
From that perspective, Ovechkin's whining about the officiating is particularly worrisome to me. Instead of viewing the officials as part of the game that you can take advantage of (by, say, waiting for their backs to be turned before swinging a bow at someone), he views them as a harsh reality imposed on him by meanies, something he has no control over. It's not true at all -- you actually get to choose how you respond to a sneaky elbow. You can choose to cry and whimper (or the male equivalent, taking a retaliatory cross-checking penalty) or you can take a dive with a sly smile.
The refs truly don't care about fairness. Their job is to call what they see, not to call a "fair" game. They know that shenanigans occur behind their backs, but they just don't care. It's not their job to see everything, only to call what they see. And you can't fault them for calling a penalty when you react stupidly to provocation. Your stupidity is your fault. This is the essence of emotional intelligence -- you actually get to choose how you react. An emotion is the body's response to a thought, and you get to choose your thoughts. Your angry reaction to an attempted slew foot is not imposed on you from the outside - it's all you. If you think "OMG HE TRIED TO SLEW FOOT ME THAT'S SO UNFAIR" you will get angry and retaliate and get called for a penalty. If instead you think "OMG REF LOOK HOW THIS ATTEMPTED SLEW FOOT HAS ALMOST CRIPPLED ME FOR LIFE" not only will you not get angry but you might actually draw a penalty.
The Caps have shown this mental weakness for several years now, and I think it starts with Ovie and Backstrom and Green. If your team leaders are showing grace under pressure and doing everything they can to win, controlling every variable in their environment to their advantage to the greatest extent possible, that will spread to the rest of the team. If instead you whine and cry at the unfairness of it all...
If Ovechkin was truly a winner, he would say "You know, the Rangers did a good job baiting us into penalties we didn't need to take. That's an aspect of playoff hockey that we haven't mastered yet, and it showed in the outcome of the series." But instead he was a whiner.
I view this as totally fixable. First the Caps need to realize the outcome of this series was not imposed on them by the league or the refs, but by the Rangers, and they need to realize the Rangers' tactics were successful only because the Caps allowed it. They CHOSE to treat the Rangers' sneakiness as unfairness imposed on them from the outside that they have no control over. Wrong! If instead they had simply chosen to accept sneakiness as a legit playoff hockey tactic, the penalty outcome wouldn't have been so lopsided, and probably they would have taken the series easily.
It would probably help for Oates to take the players aside and say, ok, in this situation you do this. Throw up your hands and scream bloody murder. And we, the fans, can help by being forgiving of "embellishing." Embellishing is a sign of mental strength. It's how you communicate to your opponent that sneaky underhanded tactics won't have the intended effect.