Once professional hockey emerged from the cocoon of the 2005-06 NHL player lockout it had evolved in to a faster, sexier version of its former self: the New NHL. Several marquee figure-heads of the “old-guard” were robbed of their final fare-wells. First-Ballot Hall of Fame names like Robitaille, Stevens and Francis faded in to front offices and broadcast booths, advisory rolls or positions in this new game; the old one went out with them. Long gone were the dynasty championship veteran laden teams, built from the back forward and seasoned with overpriced veterans, or so we thought. Ushered in were a group of fresh faced kids, cheaper talent to replace the long-time stewards of the NHL brand who’s grossly inflated salaries did not conform with the salary cap that broke them. While the NHL celebrated increased goalscoring this jump in offense hasn’t translated to better TV or gate revenues, and it certainly hasn’t helped anyone win a Stanley cup.
The game was opened up, and smaller, younger talent was served over crafty, clutch and grab elder statesmen, only the transition was hardly that at all. By definition the creation of the New NHL was more like the violent and quick yanking off of a band-aid. The pain, however, preceeded the transition, as fans were forced to lose a year of NHL hockey, the first professional North American league to suspend a championship due to a labour strike. It was ended with brief tug as the glue of the dying “Dead Puck” game clutched momentarily at the folacles of the hockey masses and was replaced with Crosby Vs. Ovechkin, a slew of new rule changes that increased goal scoring and along with it pugilism, higher impact open ice hits, an unfortunate and pathetic attempt to mimic the great NFL as referees were handed microphones to explain their very basic gestures, and a truly new game. The fans wanted goals. The owners wanted a cap. The players had all the cards and no one to play them, and now arenas are emptier than ever before, salaries are higher and the NHLPA is still a laughing stock. The lockout accomplished nothing, sad but true, but it did change the game greatly, or, a great deal; time will tell if these changes are truly great. But this fast new face of the game suggests that the success of creating a higher scoring league translates to successful high-scoring teams, and a quick look at the NHL regular season standings may just validate that point, but as we all know the second season, or third after both a gruesomely elongated pre-season, imbalanced regular season, and summer league, ahem, that is, playoffs. No, seat sales were supposedly sky rocketing with goal scoring rates, but one truth is that success – greatness – came from winning. Pittsburgh won, and they got a new arena. Chicago won, rejuvenated a once proud Original Six market, but still managed to lose money and dismantle their championship roster. Detroit won, but unfortunately that markets gate numbers are tied to GM’s stock, and no net full of government bail-out money is saving that. This only proves that success, not goals, sells, as it always has, so why the violent overhaul to the style of play? Did we need to see the record books re-written to attract new fans? Sean Avery can stop being a Caucasian Canadian version of Terrel Owens; his antics don’t sell this game the same as #81 sells NFL, although I would curiously watch a Sean Avery reality show.
Scan the regular season standings and we’ll find Washington, the most prolific offense in the league, tied for first in the East and overall NHL standings with last years’ runner-up, Philladelphia. Prior to the start of the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Playoffs the words of R.J. Umberger who prophesized the downfall of Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals only days before they became one of an embarrassed few teams ever ranked first entering the playoffs to be bounced in the opening round by the eighth seed were disregarded.
Umberger’s insite to the still relevant two-way game were disregarded as the jaded ramblings of a boastful American whose team had managed to miss the playoffs after much fan-fare heading in to a highly anticipated season fresh off the Blue Jacket’s first play-off appearance. He was ultimately vindicated.
The Chicago Blackhawks were the league’s third best offense last year during their championship run, but they were also the sixth best goals against per game, and they did so with a rookie cast-off goalkeeper from European leagues. How? A great forecheck, good depth forwards and arguably the best defense in the league, headlined by that year’s Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who along with teammate Brent Seabrook also won Olympic Gold Medals for their country, and let us not forget the Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews, who is a top-five two-way centre in the game and also a Gold Medalist. Ovechkin’s Capitals had averaged over 0.6 more goals/game than Chicago the eventual cup winner last year but were upset by the Canadiens, who were outscored by over 50% by the Caps that season, but the Canadiens, with their upstart rookie defenseman P.K. Subban, and stud puck-stopper Jaroslav Halak came within one win of a trip to the finals.
The year prior the Red Wings placed first in goals for per game during the regular season, but were defeated in six games by Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, who had a decidedly better penalty kill and fewer goals against per game, while managing to finish an uncharacteristic 20th in power play percentage. This was the sequel to the 2007-08 final where Sid the Kid’s penguins tasted defeat on home ice against a Wings team who finished first in goals against per game during the regular season, compared to a Penguins team that gave up nearly half a goal more per game than the Wings that season. In 2006-07 Chris Pronger, in his second consecutive trip to the finals, teamed up with team Canada cohort Scott Neidermyer, who had a pocketful of Cup rings and Norris trophies already, and a group of rugged, reliable veteran defenseman in front of former Conn Smythe winning goaltender J.S. Giguerre to physically beat their way to a cup championship over the high-flying Ottawa Senators. The Ducks finished 7th in goals against that season, and gave up on average three shots fewer per game than the Sens who finished the year behind only Buffalo in goals for per game. The Ducks also led the league in fighting majors dispelling the myth that Gary Bettman’s New NHL had significantly removed violence from the game. In the first Stanley Cup Final directly following the lock out a surprising Oilers club went from the eighth seed in the West to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on the heroic effort of Jussi Markanen, the team’s third string goaltender, who stood on his head after replacing Ty Conklin who replaced starting keeper Dwayne Roloson after an injury felled him in game 1 of the finals. At first glance this series seems to contradict the trend of championship teams built around strong team defense as the Oilers had a slightly better goals against average than the eventual Cup winning Hurricanes, however their defense boasted the likes of Brett Hedican, Aaron Ward and Mike Commodore, a strong 1-2 punch of Cam Ward and Martin Gerber in net, and an impressive collection of centremen: 100 point man Eric Staal, reliable veterans Matt Cullen and Kevyn Adams, and last but not least Rod Brind’Amour who won his first of back-to-back Frank J. Selke awards that year as best defensive forward in the league.
Washington is well on their way to winning a fourth consecutive South East Conference Championship – insert confetti and fireworks here – which guarantees them a favourable ranking of third or better and home ice advantage heading in to the playoffs. During this run they have placed in the top ten in goals for each season, and are primed to repeat as top scorers this year. In this stretch the Caps have improved from 19th, to 16th, to 14th this year in goals against per game, due largely to the graduation of top notch defense prospects John Carlson who is clipping along at nearly half a point per game pace with a plus-8 rating, and Karl Alzner who is an astounding plus-57 in over 100 career AHL games. Mike Green has developed another grade of grit to his sandpaper this season, and a new emphasis on two-way play. Calgary natives Tyler Sloan and Jeff Schultz have become reliable mainstays on the Caps blue line. Michael Neuvirth is making a serious case to dethrone Semyon Varlamov in the crease and the team seems to welcome healthy competition amongst its young star goaltenders. Realizing their window of opportunity to win it all is quite likely closing with the eventual departure of team goal scoring leader (and championship bongo-drummer) Alexander Semin look for the Caps to bolster their defense at the trade deadline at all costs. In poker terms this has got to be the year they realize they have to push all in on defense because everybody else in the league is calling their high-flying bluff.
Supposing the improvements to team defense are enough to get Washington through the East finals their conference is undeniably lax on that end of the game. Will they be able to compete against the traditionally more well-rounded teams of the West? Until they get the opportunity to prove it I would ask Mr. Umberger his thoughts; after all his Blue Jackets are off to a franchise best start, and have allowed a conference low 49 goals this season compared to a ranking of 20th in goals for, but that’s good for fourth in the West, two points from top spot.