The last time the Philadelphia Flyers faced the Tampa Bay Lightning, captain Chris Pronger declared that Bolts don't play hockey when they're in the 1-3-1 defensive system orchestrated by Coach Guy Boucher.
"It's not hockey in my book," he said after the Lightning's 2-1 overtime victory on Nov. 9. "But whatever. The league is letting them do it. Would you pay money to watch that?''
Pronger led the Flyers' protest against the system in the first period, ragging the puck in their own end and refusing to advance into the Lightning trap. The Bolts refused to forecheck the Flyers into moving the puck.
Referee Rob Martell, handcuffed by the rule book, blew the whistle twice for defensive zone draws. After the first one, the Flyers began advancing the puck — but only to their own blue line.
The stalemate made for train-wreck television on VERSUS and opened a League-wide debate about the validity defensive systems. On Saturday night, the teams meet again, this time in Philadelphia. Maybe you don't think the stall is a storyline; the NHL Network does, teasing the game on commercials with:
"How will the Flyers react to the Lightning's tricky 1-3-1 defense this time?!"
Good question; will we see the stall again?
The game was overshadowed by the strategy. And if it happens again, the Flyers won't change a thing.
"Typically we don't like to announce our game plan for the opponent to the newspaper," said Peter Laviolette with a wry smile, "but we might sit there for four or five minutes at a time. We might."
The Flyers clearly wanted no part in the 1-3-1 formation, but say that it's not that the trap is hard to play against. "I wouldn't say so," said Braydon Coburn. "It's a strategy they use. Obviously they got to the conference finals last year, right? Every team's got a different style of play. They have some great players and that's their style."
Quite a change from the Flyers' captain saying "it's not hockey." (Oh, if only Pronger were healthy for tonight.)
In fact, as the debate about the 1-3-1 raged after that spectacle last month, one thing started to be quite clear: The Lightning are not, by far, the only team to play a defensive system like the 1-3-1.
Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff told the NY Times, "there's probably 15 teams that play 1-3-1. We play it on occasion."
Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said much the same thing before the NHL GM meetings:
Yzerman said he believes every team uses the same basic formula. "If you can't get in on the forecheck, you fall back into some form of trap," he said. "Teams collapse in front of their net in their end zones, and teams are collapsing in the neutral zone."
In fact, Yzerman said trapping is "more extreme" now than in the '90s when the Devils' neutral-zone trap caused so much consternation and led the rules changes out of the 2004-05 lockout. "Now the discussion is, what do we do about it?" Yzerman said. "Is it worth exploring ways of changing it or do we just live with it."
Will the Flyers stall again? Given the defiant, mischievous spirit of their coach, it's possible — even if it didn't result in a victory last time.
But if the Flyers play another chess match, the run the risk of drawing some type of NHL rebuke. From Commissioner Gary Bettman on his XM Radio show last month:
"Did I like it? No. Is it the most horrible thing I've ever seen on the ice? No. But I do think it has now added another agenda item to the general managers (meetings) next week. The officials whistled down play when there was no puck movement and it was appropriate. Do we need to eliminate the trap? You know, there are a lot of people who love the game the way it is who say no. If you're playing smart, tactical hockey, that's your prerogative and it's incumbent on the other team to figure out how to deal with it. By the same token, if this became too prevalent and too much of the game and too regular, then I think we'd have to deal with it, and we will."
Would the NHL laugh off the Flyers rendering two nationally televised games unwatchable for significant minutes?