NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Impressions, Round One

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It’s been a crazy first round of Stanley Cup Playoffs action. Here I will offer some thoughts on the events that have stuck out the most to me.

Is winning everything? The players seem to think so. As a Sharks fan, I have seen more diving and embellishing to draw penalties over the past few seasons than any hockey fan on the planet, or for that matter, soccer fan. It made me lose some respect for my team because I saw it happening night after night to gain an advantage and win important games, while almost all their opponents simply refused to stoop to their level.

Even in the playoffs, when it may have cost the Detroit Red Wings their series against the Sharks in 2009-2010, Lidstrom, Datsyuk and company refused to stoop, refused to start diving back and evening out the huge power-play disparity. In the end, the Wings predictably lost the series, but succeeded in gaining my respect, while the Sharks lost some of it, but won the series, a tradeoff they seemed more than happy with.

Now it seems like more and more teams are following in the Sharks’ footsteps. Whether they saw the success that cheating granted teams like San Jose and decided they’d better start doing it too or get left behind, or what the turning point was, I don’t know, but we’ve seen more teams stoop to cheating (and worse) to win during this first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs than most of us can remember in a long time. We’ve seen embellishing, illegal hits, targeting of the opponent’s top players, intent to injure, successful attempts to injure, anything and everything just to win the hockey game. I’m not saying every team has sold their soul because it’s hard to keep track of everyone who has crossed over to the dark side in the last couple weeks, but suffice it to say the list is long.

Naturally, hockey fans are asking why this is happening. In a year where league discipline for dirty hits has been more strict than last year, not less, one would have expected the dirty hits to go down in the playoffs this year compared to last, but they seem to have skyrocketed instead. People want to know why.

Here’s one theory you can add to all the other usual ones that have been floated.

I believe that, when the game becomes so tight-checking and there is so much false-parity due to the lack of space on the ice, due to teams’ abilities to win games based solely on structure even if they have the inferior roster in terms of talent, this is the result. You get players who realize, each one of these games is a 50/50 game. There is no longer a better team and a worse team, a more talented team and a less talented team. None of that matters when there is no room on the ice, and the games are decided by bounces. So what you get in all these 50/50 games is a realization by the players that one dive can win them the game, or one hit can win them the series. If each game, 5-on-5, is so tight-checking that neither team can create any clean chances, and it’s, again, a 50/50 game, getting that one extra power-play with 10 minutes left in the third period is usually going to be the type of scenario that tilts that game from 50/50 to 60/40 in your favor, that wins you the game more often than not. It’s a realization that’s come about from these new circumstances that one dive can impact the series in your favor more than all of your skill combined.

In other words, when there is no room on the ice for any of the typical elements of hockey to create a difference between the two teams, such as skill, speed, passing, etc–when none of those usual elements of the game are giving your team much of an advantage in the game or the series, I think some players instinctually look for some other way to create the advantage, create the difference.

The “little things” have become the big things in the NHL’s current version of hockey, and that’s why you’re seeing more players stoop to cheating and dirty play. In the past, one dive or one dirty play probably would not have made much of a difference in a series, so why would you bother, anyway? Either you were the better team and would win anyway on merit alone, or you were the inferior team by a wide enough margin that it wouldn’t help you win, either.

But now the margin between every team is so close when you can just clog the ice and negate any disparity in skill, and make every game a one-goal game, the only differences that are left between teams are little ones, and therefore they can be affected, and impacted greatly, by the little minutiae of the series: a couple dives in game-two and game-five, one dirty hit that knocks out one of their second-liners in game-two, and so on and so forth, and at the end of the day, instead of losing in seven games, maybe you win in six.

When every game is so close because teams can no longer distance themselves from each other with skill 5-on-5, some players will look for any edge they can get, legal or illegal, clean or dirty, and that’s what I think we’re seeing here.

The Vancouver Canucks look injured. With the Canucks down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Kings in their Western Conference Quarter Finals series, it would seem their issues extend past the injury table. The first-line has struggled without its best goal scorer (up until game 4). The second-line has struggled without an on-form Ryan Kesler to carry Vancouver’s usual staple of mediocre second-line wingers. The third-line has struggled ever since its center Cody Hodgson was replaced with that black hole where offense goes to die named Sammy Pahlsson. The fourth-line has that player Vancouver traded Hodgson to get, Zack Kassian, but he’s been almost as useless as Pahlsson. Maxim Lapierre should have been promoted to third-line center a long time ago, to replace Pahlsson, but has been stuck on the fourth line instead.

There are a lot of issues with the Canucks that aren’t necessarily injury related, but so many of their players are underachieving outside of those issues, you have to wonder. Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis, the fist of strength at the core of that Canucks defense, just haven’t looked up to their usual high level of play, so much so that head coach Alain Vigneault has broken up the pairing at times. That should have served as warning to the Canucks faithful right away that something was wrong even at the start of the series. Sami Salo has been okay, but not great, after taking a few games off as the regular season wore down, and his defense partner, Alexander Edler, is playing some of his worst hockey in recent memory. Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev have been a serviceable third pair.

On offense, the keys, of course, are the Sedin twins and Kesler, and we know for a fact that two-thirds of that equation has been injured. Daniel Sedin missed the first three games of the series, and Kesler still does not look like himself after offseason hip surgery. Yep, offseason, as in last offseason. Tough injury.

Then there’s Alexander Burrows, who also looks like he’s had the Kesler treatment done to him, meaning he just looks “less” in some subtle way, except as far as we know he hasn’t suffered a hip injury.

Maybe it’s just that all the games that Canucks have played the past two seasons are slowing them down. Whatever the case, they don’t look 100%, and the Kings are taking full advantage.

The Chicago Blackhawks are a shell of the 2010 championship team. Their core may be still be intact from that roster, but the depth that made that team great is all gone, and GM Stan Bowman has done almost nothing to replace it. Adding Viktor Stalberg and more recently Johnny Oduya are really the only decent additions you can point to. This is a two-line team instead of the four-line team they used to be, and their round-one opponent, the Phoenix Coyotes, is out playing them without even half of the star power Chicago has, simply because they are a four-line team. And if it wasn’t for Bryan Bickell turning in an atypical stand-out performance in game-two of the series for the ‘Hawks, they would be down three games to none.

Moreover, their goaltending may be the worst of the any playoff team. Corey Crawford is good for at least one soft goal every game, even against a relatively easy team to play goal against like the Phoenix Coyotes. (Don’t get me wrong, the Coyotes are a good team, but they aren’t exactly loaded with big, superstar forwards who create chaos around the net). If Crawford gets in against a high-volume-shooting team that knows how to screen a goaltender, watch out for some blowouts.

• It also does not help the Blackhawks that former-GM Dale Tallon built them to be a fast, skilled, finesse team back in the pre-2011 days when there was actually room on the ice for a team like that to use its skill. But in the last two seasons especially, team-defense in the NHL has been perfected so much across the league that it almost does not matter who you play anymore, you are going to have your ice shrunk. The only space left to control the puck anymore most of the time is the outskirts of the ice, along the boards.

This has created a shift in the NHL landscape. Players that used to dominate based on their open-ice skill are floundering, replaced on the NHL’s top scorers list by bigger, slower players who may not have the same level of talent, but who do have the advantage in one key area: they can protect the puck along the boards. And that’s area that matters now, that’s what today’s NHL game is about, for better or worse (hint: it’s worse). It’s not about open ice skill because there is no open ice anymore.

That’s why Alex Ovechkin and his once high-flying Washington Capitals have plummeted down the scoring charts and standings. That’s why the big San Jose Sharks, once the whipping boy of the smaller Detroit Red Wings, have now completely reversed the trend. That’s why the tight-checking Nashville Predators are about to eliminate those Red Wings, even though the Red Wings arguably have three forwards more skilled than any of Nashville’s, and why the president-trophy winning Vancouver Canucks, likewise with more skill throughout their lineup than their big opponent, are also down 3-1 in the series. It’s why the team built around Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi, and a zillion blocked shots won their Conference instead of Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin, which is the exact opposite of what happened just a couple of years ago.

What does all this mean for the Blackhawks? Whether by necessity or choice, Blackhawks former-GM Dale Tallon built this team almost entirely on speed and finesse, and any size he did bring in was mostly exiled upon the arrival of his successor, Stan Bowman. Now the result is an extremely fast and skilled Blackhawks team playing in a league that does not reward either of those things.

If the Blackhawks win anything this year, it will have to be on the back’s of their four core forwards, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa, and their two core defenseman, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Problem is, only two of those six players, Hossa and Seabrook, have the size that today’s NHL game rewards. I’ve watched Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews, who have the reputations of star forwards, struggle to create consistent offense in this year’s playoffs and last. Both are still great players, if for no other reason than the opportunistic scoring that their high skill still allows for in the rare instance that their opponent makes a mistake, but neither seems able to dominate possession or create consistent offense like they used to. And Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and even Marian Hossa, come with their own shortcomings, too.

At least in 2010, there would be others capable enough to pick up the slack if the stars struggled, but from what I’ve seen so far in their first round matchup, the Blackhawks just don’t have the depth, Bryan Bickell’s one good game aside. The Blackhawks desperately need some Martin Hanzal, for example, to go along with their Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Even some middleweight players who can at least protect the puck well, like Ryan Callahan or Joe Pavelski, would do wonders for them. But they’re missing those elements right now throughout their roster, and it could be what eliminates them in round 1.

Either the Blackhawks need to change the complexion of their roster a bit–I’m not saying subtract any of the good finesse players, but add to them, or Stan Bowman needs to go to the league and find a way to get the game back to where there was actually room on the ice for skilled players to thrive. Until one of those two things happen, the Blackhawks will remain a shell of their former selves.

Written by Shark Circle