If the Washington Capitals win Game 7 on Saturday night and advance to the Eastern Conference Final, it will provide the NHL with one of its most Bizarro World moments in recent memory: The defense-first, sit-on-a-lead, at times monotonous system of the Washington Capitals against the up-tempo, offensively aggressive New Jersey Devils.
Just three years ago, this characterization of the respective teams would have earned you a straightjacket and a padded room. Or at least a spot in the Coyotes' new ownership group.
The Devils are averaging 3.00 goals per game, while Washington is at 2.15. The New York Rangers are scoring only 2.08 goals per game, and yielding 1.92. The Los Angeles Kings are also averaging 3.00 goals per game, but have been used as an example of boring, conservative defensive hockey because they give up only 1.56 per game.
But the real culprit in this alleged turn toward the defensive: The Phoenix Coyotes, who average 2.64 goals per game, give up only 1.91 and are last in the playoffs in shots per game (26.8).
And, my god, they're all blocking shots too! Like, lots of them, courtesy of the Rangers and Dale Hunter hockey and fearless players with great padding. Alex Ovechkin is even blocking shots; in the past, the only way that happens is if his opponent accidentally hits him with the puck as Ovi's skating to the red line to cherry pick a pass.
So scoring isn't where it should be, fans are complaining about the excitement level of playoff games, the term "Dead Puck Era" is being tossed around again and there's a clamor for rules changes in the next lockout, er, CBA.
It's an overreaction, an unnecessary panic, and one that's easily remedied.
The concern, beyond the level of entertainment displayed in the 2012 Playoffs, is that this defensive mindset will spread. Said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson to the National Post after his team was bounced by the stingy St. Louis Blues:
"That's really the most recent [thing] in my mind, is just how we were beat and who we were beat by," said Wilson. "[The Blues] were a better team than us all year long. I can't sit here and complain about that. But what I do have to do is decide how we're going to build our team going forward to be successful. And several other teams will have to make that same decision. We're not there yet, but we're certainly cognizant of what the issue is."
… "I guess the response I'll give you is we have to acknowledge that there are teams that play a certain way and you have to give them credit," said Wilson. "Now, we'll see who will succeed as we go through the playoffs.
"You always follow who has success. You have to acknowledge it and you have to evaluate it."
(For a team like San Jose, one wonders what the impact might be if Dale Hunter makes the conference final playing Alex Ovechkin 15 minutes in an elimination game … and succeeding.)
Defense wins championships. It's not a cliché, it's a tenet of NHL coaching. If you're waiting for some talent-laden firewagon hockey team to reinvent the wheel and score five goals per game, you're better off dedicating your time to finding something more realistic, like a Unicorn driving moon buggy on a cloud.
Nine of the 16 playoff teams this season posted lower GAA averages in the playoffs than in the regular season — 10 if you consider the Blackhawks' 0.01 deviation to be a wash. The hatches are battened down. Leads are placed inside of safe.
As you can see, scoring has declined for three consecutive seasons, including a dramatic dip in 2011-12 in goals per game. But that coincided with a dip in power-play goals per game, as even-strength scoring was up.
So we're back to the "just call the damn penalties" argument that's always been the best antidote for Dead Puck Hockey. If there's obstruction, call it — more power plays, and by virtue of the crackdown, less obstruction.
But is there obstruction?
Rory Boylen of The Hockey News looked at the Dead Puck Panic back in March, and believes that it's power play goals and opportunities that are decreasing offense, and that the concern over obstruction is unfounded:
Power play opportunities per game jumped by 1.7 in 2005-06, but are currently being handed out less frequently than they were in the last year of the Dead Puck Era. But this has not had an adverse impact on the game's goal totals at even strength, so how can one argue the clutching and grabbing is impeding with the entertainment level of a game to the degree it was before the lockout - or even that it's headed in that direction?
If fewer penalties meant the Dead Puck Era was creeping back, wouldn't that mean 5-on-5 goals would suffer rather than swell?
Entertainment value depends on your opinion. If all that keeps you interested in games are goal totals, then constant passing around the perimeter with the man-advantage is right up your alley. I like to call this "Harlem Globetrotters" hockey.
But if every other facet of hockey is something you enjoy as well, then this version of the NHL is still in a good spot. If you like battles for the puck, battling through checks, earning every inch of ice and every goal scored, the current incarnation of the NHL is for you. I like to call this "old-time" hockey.
And that's the thing: Old Time Hockey is fun. The Dead Puck Era sapped the joy out of the game. As Lambert wrote over on Backhand Shelf, the defensive posturing in the playoffs hasn't been all that tedious:
This is the league we have these days, like it or not. You can either complain about it, deal with it, or learn to love it. But what people have to understand about defensive hockey is that it's not, inherently at least, boring hockey. Sure, it CAN be boring. The first Caps/Rangers game was dull as they come, but there were a total of six goals in the final three games between Nashville and Phoenix, and that was some exciting hockey. My hope is that this hockey that's going to be played over the next two weeks is both ultra-defensive and ultra-exciting. While idiots will look at the scorelines and decide, sight unseen, that these were boring games, it will vindicate this as an entertaining form of the game.
"Entertaining" is not something associated with "Dead Puck Hockey." We're seeing an evolution in style, rather than a regression, according the Mike Chen:
The teams that have found success in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs aren't laden with big-name forwards with huge contracts, particularly in the West. Instead, most of the advancing teams could be fairly interchangeable — a bigger defenseman here, a more crafty forward there, but mostly similar in terms of makeup, and it's not just a hot goalie involved. These teams present what is almost a hybrid if the 1990s dead puck trap, combined with post-lockout speed. The result is a read and react system that can be as physical as it is stifling, with five players occupying a strict defensive system, but transitioning to a hard, pounding forecheck once the puck is gained. The teams that execute this system well have every player committed to defensive positioning, making it a nightmare for the opposition to get a shot on goal. And when a shot does make it through, rebounds are quickly cleared.
Is this good for the NHL? I think the question's immaterial, because coaches are always going to run to the right when it comes to liberal offensive play or conservative defense, but others see the question as a gateway to — wait for it — rules changes!
So whether it's restricting the areas in which players can block shots or making it more difficult for teams to kill power plays (the old "you must skate the puck out of your defensive zone" innovation, for example), one imagines there's going to be a reaction to this postseason in which some star-laden teams were laid to waste by teams that stymied them defensively.
(By the way: Legislating for offense is always a better decision than legislating against defense. Removing the red line, for example, is popular. The puck over the glass rule and the trapezoid have significantly lower approval ratings.)
It'll be an overreaction, of course, because playoff trends are usually just anomalies. The Devils only won one of their Cups playing the traditional neutral zone trap; their 2000 team was more like what we're seeing today in the NHL. The Anaheim Ducks muscled up and won in 2007, but the copycatism on that lasted about a year. And considering three of the five teams still alive have franchise goalies — with Mike Smith potentially becoming a fourth — the Antti Niemi/Michael Leighton "goalies on the cheap" paradigm never shifted.
Are there changes to be made? Sure. How's this one: Blocking a shot that goes out of play is a delay of game. If we're going to keep that other silly delay rule on the books, then expand it to help cut down on blocks.
Tweaking the game is fine, but let's all knock off the Dead Puck Panic. Vancouver, Boston and San Jose weren't exactly Lemiare teams, and they were in the final four last postseason. In this postseason, we've confused solid defense and great goaltending for a harbinger of trap doom.
Just because Darryl Sutter's upsetting higher seeds and John Tortorella's five wins from the Stanley Cup doesn't mean it's 2004 again.