Does anyone get the feeling that this is 2004 all over again? It's the Stanley Cup playoffs, the pinnacle of NHL competition, yet there is such an unsettled feeling to this year's proceedings -- as was the case eight years ago. The similarities as I see them are: a collective bargaining agreement about to expire, unforeseen playoff runs by unlikely teams, and much ado about a boring brand of hockey. Let's debate, shall we...
By '04, the lack of offensive flow spawned the term "obstruction" as players away from the puck were non-factors due to defensive tactics that eliminated them as passing options for the puck-carrier. Now here we are in the spring of the blocked shot, as all five players pack in around their net, stay in shooting lanes and deny any clear shots on goal. The New York Rangers have taken the shot-block mentality to new heights, to where that aspect of the game has come to define them. Leading the Eastern Conference during the regular season and reaching the conference final serves to validate the Rangers' commitment to BS (blocked shot abbreviation... among other things).
Well, it hasn't slowed New York's success yet and, in fact, the Washington Capitals, the team the Rangers defeated in seven games in the second round, went to much the same game plan -- leaving us lauding Alex Ovechkin for his "sacrifice" as he awkwardly blocked a few shots from the point. Once known for his breathtaking open-ice forays and bone-crunching checks, the "Great 8" fell in line, dropped to the ice as one of eighteen. "I was asked to be a plumber, so I was a plumber."
I know, Caps coach-at-the-time Dale Hunter needed 100 percent buy-in from everyone. He needed to change the culture in the Caps' locker room and prove what it takes to win in the postseason. He espoused the "uplifting effect theory" when explaining the importance of having the captain and best player committing to the unselfish act of blocking shots. And Hunter and the Caps came close to advancing.
So, again, you cannot fault the coach and you have to applaud the players' conviction to do whatever it takes to win the Stanley Cup. But this playoff season has the look of a slowed-down game due to all the muck and mire along the boards and in front of the net.
Look, I love what Darryl Sutter and his Los Angeles Kings are doing. And I know this sounds like so much complaining to those who have a rooting interest in the Rangers, Devils, Kings and Coyotes. To all of you, the action is riveting. To too many observers, though, close is not necessarily compelling. The endless board scrums of six or more players at a time and the crease pile-ups with the occasional puck making it through to the goaltender aren't exciting enough on their own -- especially to the degree that we're seeing this spring. The balance of play in the open ice and the play in the trenches -- both necessary components in the proper amounts to show the game at its best -- is tipping too much towards the trenches.
Not that any of the current participants care, especially John Tortorella and his Rangers. The feisty coach is unapologetic by nature anyway. He could care less if his body-blocking, puck-stopping Blueshirts stifle the Devils to the point of frustration. As a matter of fact, Tortorella hopes this postseason run turns out just like it did in 2004 when he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup.
He knows very well that style points don't factor into winning.