Tonight the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals meet for Game 7 of their series, with the winner moving on to face the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals. The series between the Rangers and the Capitals has been an extremely entertaining one, perhaps the best of the playoffs so far (I'll explain why in a bit), but what has been really interesting is how the series -- and the remaining teams -- has created a narrative that the NHL is right back in the think of the "dead puck era."
The Kings and Coyotes, in particular, seem to be a target of such frustrations as these are two teams that are using incredible defense and goaltending to fuel two unexpectedly deep runs in the postseason. Both teams are allowing the fewest goals per game of any team in the playoffs and are riding two extremely hot goaltenders on what they hope to be the road to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The fact that these two defensive-minded teams have beaten out Detroit, Chicago, Vancouver, Nashville and other top ten regular-season scoring teams seems to have fueled this notion that the NHL is back to the "boring days" before the NHL lockout.
While it is true that scoring across the league is down overall since 2005-2006, just because teams have found a way to adjust defensive strategies and parlay that to successful hockey does not mean that hockey is boring once again. In fact, one could argue that hockey is at it's most exciting when teams are able to withstand hard-charging offenses and when two defensively-strong teams meet, it has the makings for some extremely entertaining hockey that makes every coaching decision, every penalty and every shot all the more exciting.
The big issue, I assume, is the fact that only the Rangers and Capitals represent teams that the NHL can still rely upon for big ratings in the remainder of the playoffs. Teams like the Flyers, Canucks, Penguins, Red Wings, Sharks and perhaps even the Predators have all been found wanting this postseason, despite their high-spending, high-scoring approach to hockey this season.
The issue of scoring being down is not a new one this season, as discussions about how to "fix hockey again" have started to come up more and more frequently. One theory is that because penalties are way down, especially as the season wore on, then scoring overall is actually down -- not because teams are suddenly back to the trap systems that everyone so upset back in 2004.
So, even-strength scoring is actually at an all-time high over the past ten years. It's power play goals and short handed goals that are way down, causing scoring overall to dip to its lowest point since 2003-04.
Obviously this cannot be an issue related to "trap hockey" or "boring defensive styles" that coaches have forced upon their teams in the NHL that is now turning hockey back into the succubus of fun that everyone hated so much before the lockout. Instead, this seems to be a direct result of the NHL trying to find a way to slow down the game by not calling nearly as many penalties as before, which has cut down on the amount of power plays teams receive in each game.
The question here, of course, is whether more power play goals actually means more entertaining and exciting hockey.
For many pure hockey fans and -- I'm assuming -- most hockey fans in general, an increase in even-strength scoring and a purer form of the game itself is actually the most exciting hockey there can be. This is why people love the postseason so much, because the intensity of the game is at an all-time high, tacky penalties aren't called nearly as often and the teams that are playing the purest and most well-rounded hockey are the ones that are able to advance to the next round.
So, is it a bad thing that teams like the Kings and Coyotes are advancing? Aside from the Flyers and Penguins, three of the remaining five teams are the highest-scoring teams in the playoffs so far. The difference is that, of course, the Kings, Coyotes and Devils have all found a way to actually stop the puck from going into their own net -- something that the Flyers and Penguins never figured out how to do. Both teams might have scored the most, yet both teams also had the worst defense and goaltending.
The Flyers and Penguins series from the first round is a good example of just how problematic this debate is. That series featured an astronomical amount of goal scoring each game and it seemed that we were watching something closer to an all-star exhibition that the best hockey the NHL could possibly have to offer. The storylines and physicality between the two teams was entertaining but the hockey itself was absolutely atrocious. There were times when I felt as if there was no structure, no actual strategy to the games -- maybe that's entertaining to some, but it doesn't feel like the best hockey the NHL has to offer.
The Capitals and Rangers, on the other hand, has been an extremely entertaining chess match between two great coaches and a clash of conflicting approaches. The Rangers lived on defense and goaltending all season long, extremely stingy in goals-allowed and shots allowed per game during the regular season. The Rangers also accomplished this by being one of the most aggressive and successful shot-blocking teams in the league.
The Capitals, before Dale Hunter took over behind the bench, were always considered one of the most aggressive teams in the NHL on offense. Behind Hunter, however, the Capitals are using a shut-down approach to defense and a focus on shot-blocking to stifle the Rangers offense and frustrate those in New York who now, some how, think that shot blocking is a sin of the highest order.
The new-age rules were supposed to promote skill, supposed to open up the game, supposed to spotlight the best and the brightest of the NHL, but in the Stanley Cup playoffs in Year Seven of the hard-cap era have largely been distilled to a matter of which team can block the most shots.
The blocked shot and coaches' obsession with it as a means toward ending an opponents' season have become hockey's version of baseball's pitch count, an art that might lead to victory but has made the game less entertaining and has perverted the framers' original intent.
Even for Larry Brooks this is a preposterous assertion. How in the world can a devotion to shot-blocking be anything but entertaining?
The problem with the "dead puck era" of hockey was that teams used obstruction and a trap style to slow the game down to the point where goal scoring became nearly impossible and hockey itself became a half-ice game. The NHL changed the rules to open up the game, to enforce obstruction and holding, and scoring jumped because of the incredible amount of penalties now being called during games.
Here we sit now, six years later, and it should be no surprise that some of the best coaches in the game have adjusted to the "new NHL". The number one priority of any hockey team, ever, that ever existed at any point in time across the entire globe, has always been to stop the puck from going into their own net. The goal of baseball teams, football teams, sports teams everywhere is to make it a priority to stop the other team from scoring.
Sure, a focus on offense is important as well, but the old adage "defense wins championships" exists for a very good reason. And it has been proven that teams that keep the other team from scoring the best are usually the ones that advance the furthest.
The Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning, one of the best offenses of all time, didn't win a Super Bowl until their defense actually started playing at a high level.
The Chicago Bears, in that same year, went to the Super Bowl with Rex Freaking Grossman at quarterback -- because of their defense.
The best baseball teams win the World Series because of pitching and defense -- Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, etc.
Last season, the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup -- while being the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference both in the playoffs and in the regular season in 2010-11.
There are outliers, of course. The Pittsburgh Penguins won in 2009 despite a subpar defense and goaltending (17th in the regular season) and won because of their offense. They've failed to make it out of the quarterfinals the past two seasons, however.
So is it a bad thing that teams that play highly-structured defensive hockey with great goaltending are the ones advancing through the postseason? Not in the least. Perhaps this is just the natural progression of the game, as the best coaches find a way to adjust to this "new NHL" and continue to shut down this high-charging offenses on teams that have little focus on defense.
I love shot-blocking and I love a team that is committed to doing so. It's not a bad part of the game that must be stopped -- we're talking about players that are sacrificing their bodies over and over again to win hockey games. How is that not entertaining?
Here's the funny thing about this argument: The Capitals are still allowing 33 shots per game in the playoffs. That's 3rd worst of all 16 teams that entered the postseason. Even better? The Phoenix Coyotes, a team that many say is an example of this "boring hockey", are allowing 36.4 shots per game -- dead last in the postseason among all 16 teams.