Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Stanley Cup Playoffs: Gotta Hate It!

Yes, that borders on the blasphemous, but that's the only conclusion Habs GM can come to after watching the first few games of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Teams with more ability to play quasi-Charlestown Chiefs style hockey are rewarded. Those with actual skill? Not so much.

Let me be clear: I do not object to hitting. It's a natural and necessary part of the sport. Even in womens hockey -- where checking is banned -- one still sees plenty of contact. And in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the hitting seems to reach a fever pitch. That's all well and good.

But the hitting must be legal. That means no pinning an opposing player against the ice or boards when the opposing player does not have the puck. Or hitting him at all. That's interference, plain and simple. If he does have the puck, then he better look out (esp if the Habs' Big K is on the ice). And if, when defending against an opponent with the puck, you take your free hand off the stick to wrap it around the opponent -- that's holding. Even if it was only for the briefest of moments. These are basic definitions of penalties that were well understood during the regular season.

And perhaps some will argue that the officials should just let the players play, lest the officials insert themselves into the outcome of the game. This argument never made much sense to me. The officials are there to enforce the rules. If someone breaks them, they get penalized. If they don't call the rules, the players are penalized anyway -- and usually the ones with the most skill. So not enforcing the rules changes the outcome too, and the officials are still center stage.

Part of the argument against the obstruction crackdown in the post-lockout NHL was that too many penalties detracted from the flow of the game. Games would be decided by special teams play, as 5-on-5 play would be few and far between. Indeed this was the case initially. But eventually players grew accustomed to the play, and penalties were called with less frequency. Coaches adjusted their game plans as well, emphasizing shot blocking since clutching and grabbing were now outlawed.

But somehow those lessons keep getting lost every time the playoffs roll around. Let's take a few examples from this year's early series:
  1. The supremely skilled Plekanec line has been replaced in offensive effectiveness by the so-called "buzz cut boys": Begin-Smolinski-Kostopolous. The most recent example was the lone Habs goal in the 2-1 loss at Boston. Smolinski clearly interfered with the Bruins dman behind the goal line, allowing Kostopolous to break free in front and shove the puck under Thomas' pad.
  2. Plekanec now likens his play to that of a "little girl" -- as if somehow he has to transform himself into one of the Hansen brothers? More telling is Carbo's reaction to Plekanec's assessment: "Most of the time, you have more room in the regular season, more time to make your plays. But playoff time is a little different. You have to put (aside) a little of the skills and use more grit." Put aside skill??? One would think that the playoffs is when true skill is elevated, not to mention rewarded.
  3. In the West, probably the best example of skill vs thugs are the Sharks vs the Flames. In game 3, the Sharks opened the game with 3 goals in less than 4 minutes. Then the Flames turned up the hits, most savagely exemplified by Cory Sarich's head crushing hit on captain Patrick Marleau 12 minutes into the first. Seemingly everyone but the refs thought it was a penalty. Sarich even started heading toward the penalty box, escorted by a linesman. But no penalty was called, and the Sharks went on to allow 4 straight goals by the Flames.
Maybe this is so disappointing this year because of how beautifully the Habs played this year. At times their 5-on-5 play resembled a power play, keeping the puck away from the opposition with such skill as to inspire awe from even the most jaded of viewers. Or maybe its the unfulfilled promise of the "new-NHL" which has managed to at least partly open up the ice for skilled players in the regular season, only to once again disappoint us in the playoffs.

Does every team have to turn into the thuggish Anaheim Ducks to smashmouth their way to the Cup? I sincerely hope not.