Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 19, 2012

NHL Playoffs Equal Parts Unpredictable And Ugly

There’s a lot of hockey to be played before some lucky team captain gets to raise the Stanley Cup above his head and begin a triumphal skate, but already two things are clear about this year’s NHL playoffs. The first is that this year the usual claim that the playoffs represent a second season in which any one of the sixteen teams that make it in has a real chance of winning isn’t just some idle marketing hype. For only the second time in the seven years since the NHL returned to the ice following the 2004-05 lockout, not one of the eight opening round series will end in a four-game sweep. Going into Thursday night’s contests each team in each series has won at least one game. Eighteen of the first twenty-eight games have been decided by a single goal, and six of the eight series have had either all of their games to date, or all but one, decided by a one-goal margin.

Even more remarkable than the almost uniformly close, highly competitive nature of the playoffs to date are the identities of the teams on top in the two series that up until Wednesday night had the potential to result in a sweep. In the Western Conference the 8th seed Los Angeles Kings traveled to Vancouver and twice beat the Canucks 4-2, then won a 1-0 thriller on home ice to push the top seed to the brink of elimination. Top seeds have lost in the first round before, as fans of the San Jose Sharks in 2009 and the Washington Capitals in 2010 remember all too well. But the Canucks aren’t just a #1 seed; they are the winner of the President’s Trophy as the team with the best regular season record in the league. No President’s Trophy winner has ever been swept in the first round. Fortunately for Vancouver fans, on Wednesday night their team scored two power play goals, after going 0-for-14 with a man advantage in the first three contests, and staved off both elimination and a particularly unwelcome bit of history-making with a 3-1 win in L.A.

Vancouver’s victory may have come at a high price however. Before game 3, Coach Alan Vigneault made the controversial decision to bench starting goalie Roberto Luongo in favor of backup Cory Schneider. While it was a call that obviously worked out, it’s hard to see how Vigneault can now go back to his franchise goalie for game 5. If Schneider should somehow backstop Vancouver to an improbable comeback in this series, fans are unlikely to want to see Luongo back between the pipes for the start of round two. The problem for Vancouver is that Luongo has nearly a decade remaining on a twelve-year contract extension he signed prior to the 2009-10 season. That deal includes a no-trade clause and a heavy $5.33 annual hit against the NHL’s salary cap. That’s a long, long time, and a whole lot of cap space to be spent on a backup goaltender. Of course for the moment, Vigneault and the rest of Vancouver’s management are just happy that their team is still skating and not heading for the golf course.

Meanwhile in the Eastern Conference the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team picked by many pundits as the squad most likely to give the top-seeded New York Rangers a run for the conference title were instead skating for their lives in Philadelphia Wednesday night. The idea of the Flyers beating the Penguins doesn’t quite fall into the realm of the incredible like the Kings over the Canucks. There is no love lost between the two in-state rivals, and fans of both teams were prepared for a hard-fought series that could in the end go either way. When Philadelphia beat Pittsburgh 4-3 in overtime in game 1 that looked to be what fans were going to get. But then the Penguins came unglued, and the Flyers rolled over their rivals in a pair of wild routs, winning 8-5 and 8-4. The idea of either Pennsylvania team sweeping the other, and doing so in such easy fashion, was about the last thing anyone would have predicted.

So of course Wednesday night the Penguins avoided the sweep but increased the farcical nature of this series. There were seven goals scored in the first period alone, with Pittsburgh holding a one-goal advantage at the intermission. Then the Pens tallied five unanswered goals in the second and added a final one in the third, winning by a score of 10-3 that made the Flyers two previous routs look like nail biters. The series returns to Pittsburgh Friday night; perhaps in that game both teams will remember how to play defense for a change.

Unlike these two, the other opening round series are generally tight and could still go either way. In the East the top-ranked Rangers have their hands full against #8 Ottawa, in a series that’s tied at two games apiece. Going into Thursday night the #2 Boston Bruins have played three one-goal games against Washington, and hold a narrow 2-1 series lead. Out West the #2 St. Louis Blues dropped their opener against San Jose, and have been forced to rally to also build a slight 2-1 lead in their opening series. Perhaps in the end order will be restored, but one week into the Stanley Cup playoffs, not a single playoff team can be counted out.

On the other hand, what can be counted out are a growing number of players, as in addition to being competitive these playoffs have already set records for dirty and dangerous play, cheap shots, and suspensions. Through the entirety of last year’s playoffs, seven players were suspended for play that injured or threatened the safety of an opponent. This year, through just the first week of post-season play, nine suspensions have been ordered, with the most recent an indefinite ban to the Phoenix Coyotes’ Raffi Torres after he launched himself into the head of Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday night. After Hossa lay still on the ice for several minutes, he was eventually removed on a stretcher and transported to a Chicago hospital.

Unfortunately at every NHL arena there are fans who will sit on their hands until a fight breaks out, and then stand and cheer wildly. They ignore the fact that in international play fighting is virtually unheard of. Yes, it’s a contact sport, and hard hits are absolutely a part of the game. But cheap shots that are meant to injure add nothing to the sport. This year, for the first time since the current 16-team playoff format was adopted almost two decades ago, the number of fights per game in the playoffs is greater than in the regular season. The number usually goes down in the post-season, as players want to avoid costing their team by being ejected and penalized when the Stanley Cup is on the line.

The league, which has been horribly inconsistent in both handing out and explaining punishment since the playoffs began, needs to come down hard on the goons. The players union needs to recognize that “player safety” isn’t some empty slogan, but a real reference to the health of its members. Professional hockey, especially during the playoffs, can and should be fast, elegant, and yes, hard-hitting; it can and should be all that without descending into thuggery.

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