Monday, May 28, 2012
The hockey is just fine, thank you
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
NEW YORK -- Maybe the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils will provide the perfect antidote for what has become a season of carping about the game.
Too many close games.
Too many blocked shots.
Too much defense.
Boo-hoo, we want more goals.
Even from a group that invariably eats its own, the hue and cry from the hockey community over the State of the Game has become even more fevered than normal this spring.
In some ways, the game is like that old line about art: I don't know art but I know what I like.
The sense from many quarters this spring is that the game is somehow being dragged into some black lagoon by defense-first coaches and talent-challenged teams that somehow managed to dislodge more skilled and, ergo, more entertaining teams along the way.
Curse you, Los Angeles Kings, for eliminating the Vancouver Canucks.
And curse you, Philadelphia, for eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins and double-curse you for then laying an egg against New Jersey.
Curse you, Washington, for knocking off Boston, which everyone seems to love to hate at least a little bit. And then curse you Washington for, well, making Alex Ovechkin spend so much time on the bench while you were playing 14 postseason games.
The GMs, who are always looking at ways of improving the game, will open up time on their agenda for Wednesday's meeting in New York to respond to some of the concerns raised this playoff year about where the game is heading.
You know what?
Maybe we're not like that art cliché at all.
Maybe we know hockey but don't know for the life of us what we like.
Remember that wild Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series to open the playoffs?
Those two longtime rivals combined for 56 goals in a six-game set.
What were the storylines after the series? Marc-Andre Fleury stunk, the Penguin defense stunk and the Flyers still didn't know what they had in Ilya Bryzgalov in net (even though they were about to find out against the Devils), so we didn't know whether they were going to stink or not.
Don't recall anyone calling that one a classic.
Don't recall anyone saying, "This is the blueprint for playoff hockey."
Of course, in general, folks didn't much like the way the New York Rangers or Washington Capitals played when they collided in the second round, although having watched in person five of the seven games, I actually found much of it compelling.
Remember that triple-overtime game won by Marian Gaborik off a delicious Brad Richards pass?
How about Richards tying Game 5 with 6.6 seconds left in regulation, a game that changed the course of the entire series?
After seven games, the two teams had combined for 28 goals.
Firewagon hockey it wasn't, but given all the hand-wringing during the Rangers' playoff run, you'd think every single team in the NHL is poised to employ Dan Girardi clones and send the game off a steep cliff onto jagged rocks.
We've seen repeated references to the NHL's copycat syndrome and there might be something to it, although given the facts, it's not a particularly smart way to build a team.
When the Ducks won in 2007 bullying everyone they came across and shutting down offenses with a terrific forecheck and high-end defense, the cries of alarm went up: Bozo Wars were sure to follow.
Um. Detroit and Pittsburgh hardly qualify as havens for thugs and they managed to corner the market on Stanley Cup finals berths the next two years. Chicago and Philadelphia did it in 2010 and their blueprints would include high-end skill up and down the lineup (and shoddy goaltending, but we digress).
Last year, the skilled Canucks and the hard-working, four-line-rolling, physically intimidating Bruins clashed in the finals, with the Bruins emerging after seven wacky games.
Both were gone in the first round this season.
The Rangers, the poster boys for playoff angst, have since the lockout been a hard-working team, first under Tom Renney and then John Tortorella. It hasn't translated into meaningful playoff success, although being among the final four teams this season is nothing to scoff at. But we're pretty sure Tortorella wasn't telling Gaborik to fade to black when it mattered most. Or Derek Stepan or Carl Hagelin or Brian Boyle or any of the players who couldn't find the back of the net for much of the postseason.
You coach what you have and when your powder is damp, you lock it down. Simple.
Next season, maybe the Rangers are lighting it up and everyone will want to copy them -- unless they get bounced in the first round.
And that brings us to the Devils and the Kings.
They are the two best teams remaining in this playoff tournament; full value for their positions here. The Kings, of course, roared through the West with a 12-2 record and have gone 3-0 to start all three series in spite of starting on the road as an eighth seed. They are unbeaten on the road.
The Devils, after doing some stutter-stepping in the first round against a Florida team much better than anyone has given them credit for being, have gone 8-3 in dispatching favored Philadelphia and the top-seeded New York Rangers.
These teams play, observers say, "the right way," which one can only assume means they have won 12 games to date and hope to win four more before the other team.
The Kings average 2.93 goals per game and the Devils aren't far behind at 2.83.
They roll four lines. They've got skill up and down their respective lineups.
They can play a pounding game -- the Kings especially -- and they've got goaltenders who can give you plenty of highlight-reel saves.
So, what's not to like about this matchup?
But, will they give us what we want starting Wednesday night with Game 1 in Newark?
Maybe. If only we knew for sure what that was.