2012 NHL Playoff Hockey: Defence First, Ratings Last

NBC’s ratings were up a whopping 50% mid-way through the first round of the NHL playoffs. Savor those ratings NBC.

While the first round has featured such gripping matchups as Penguins-Flyers and Washington-Boston, the Western Conference has seen, to put it nicely, its more defensively aware teams succeed. The St. Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville Predators and L.A. Kings have all prevailed against offensively superior teams.

Thus, the problem associated with modern-day hockey.

Defense is being rewarded and offense is being punished. While the NFL and NBA continue to make the game easier for high-octane offenses, the NHL is devolving. Teams heavily reliant on goaltending and sound defensive strategy are reaping the benefits of the NHL’s slow but steady return to the obstruction and hooking that made hockey almost unwatchable in its pre-lockout years.

While Tom Brady throws touchdown after touchdown and Blake Griffin, well, throws down, the NHL highlights are featuring save after save from robotic…sorry, technically sound goaltenders.  I like a great save as much as the next guy, but enough is enough. Actually that’s probably a lie, goalie saves are overrated.

Nevertheless, the NHL is now going to have to make it through these Dick Cheney waterboardingly painful Western Conference matchups.

There is not one team left in the Western Conference that plays an entertaining brand of hockey. The West will be riding their new defense first motto all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. No matter what, some team that you couldn’t pay most of America to watch will have a very good chance at hoisting Lord Stanley.

The defensive mindset issue has been getting out of hand recently. Peter Laviolette boldly stood up to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 1-3-1 trap system during the middle of the season.  I wrote about the lack of goal scoring plaguing the NHL in late October and what they should do to fix it.

Goal scoring is still a big problem. The average goals per game in the NHL have decreased once again in the 2011-12 season, and is at its lowest average since the 60′s. The goals do not stem from a lack of shots as that number has kept steady for the past half century.

The players are bigger and faster, the goalies are just too big and there’s not enough room out on the ice for skill players to be skill players. Defensive hockey is not a bad strategy, it’s just boring. In no way am I saying that we should be blaming the coaches for implementing this brand of hockey.

Blame the NHL for allowing this to develop.

This is the NHL’s problem and they seem content with ignoring it. I guess they figure if they ignore it, the problem will go away, you know, like headshots.

The fact that the defensive teams are being rewarded for playing their watching grass grow on a sunny day style of hockey is not good news for hockey fans. It is possible that this year’s playoffs could be chalked up to an anomaly but it appears to be more of a trend than anything else. If this trend does continue, more and more General Managers will be forced to build their franchises around goaltending and defense rather than skilled offensive players.

The Washington Capitals for years have been an underachieving playoff team despite their ability to be one of the most exciting teams in the NHL on a nightly basis. The Chicago Blackhawks won a Stanley Cup 3 years ago but have been ousted in the first round the last 2 seasons after losing a considerable chunk of their Cup winning core. The Vancouver Canucks are still without a championship in their history despite being one of the best offensive teams.

The leading regular season scorers of the Western Conference teams advancing include 39 (soon to be 40) year old Ray Whitney (77 points), Anze Kopitar (76 points), Martin Erat (58 points), and David Backes (58 points). The 2nd leading scorers for both Ray Whitney’s Coyotes and Anze Kopitar’s Kings have less than 60 points. It also isn’t coincidental that the Predators and Kings have 2 of the 3 Vezina nominated goalies for the 2011-12 season.

The cliché defense wins championships could not be more true at this moment in time for the NHL.

I said in late October that the NHL would be best served to significantly reduce the size of the goalie’s pads in order to help buck this trend. Not enough to compromise the safety of goaltenders obviously, but enough to make a difference for goal scoring in the NHL.

The effect that poor goaltending can have on a series was on full display in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series in the first round. That type of goaltending is rare in this era of the ridiculously sized, and robotic R2D2-like goaltenders. Smaller pads would make the unpredictable excitement of the Penguins-Flyers series more of a common occurrence.

Mike Smith, Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick, Craig Anderson. They have been the story of the NHL playoffs so far. The Great 8, Alex Ovechkin, was benched for the entire 3rd period of the Capitals game 4 victory because coach Dale Hunter felt that would be best for preserving a 1 goal lead. He was right.

Fantastic. Just…fantastic.

Right now, there is a fork in the road and the NHL is clearly headed down the wrong path.

NBC brace yourselves. This is going to be a long month.

 

Chris Ross

Chris is a writer on Comedic Prose, and he also is the editor of Painting the Black.

You can follow Chris on twitter @paintstheblack or e-mail him at cross_can15@hotmail.com

About the author: Chris Ross

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