Home > Sports > The Stanley Cup Playoffs: A First Round Summation

The Stanley Cup Playoffs: A First Round Summation

RandomDanglingMystery has generally maintained a relative silence about hockey matters since the Edmonton Oilers’ mathematical elimination from playoff contention became a fait accompli (which was probably sometime in January, when you really parse it). But the playoff themselves, now just commencing their second round (or conference semi-finals, to be terminologically precise), always offer multiple points of interest. The playoffs are not only notable for their drama, intrigue, and high level of play, but also for their crystallization of the professional game’s dominant themes on its largest stage.

Although the later rounds are emphasized as the surviving teams creep towards North American sport’s most iconic and tradition-soaked trophy, it’s the first round where things get especially interesting from a sporting narrative point of view. 16 teams, some of which maybe ought not even to be in the playoffs at all, are contending simultaneously, often in three or four pairs daily, and there seems to be no end to the number of discussion points offered by even a 24-hour window of games. It’s the closest that the NHL comes to the thrilling overload of the first extended weekend of NCAA basketball’s March Madness tournament. Only with much greater violence.

Just a friendly tete-a-tete. Or tete-a-verre, as it were.

This last point was especially prevalent in round one this year, hands being wrung and those same wrung-hands slapped dismissively away over the various acts of physical violence that seemed to go beyond even the pale for the practical bloodsport that is pro hockey. There was Nashville Predators Norris Trophy-nominated defenseman Shea Weber slamming Detroit Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg’s face in the glass with his hand at the end of a Predators victory, New York Ranger Carl Hagelin elbowing Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson in the head, and, most infamously, Phoenix Coyote (and former Oilers cult hero) Raffi Torres levelling Chicago Blackhawks sniper Marian Hossa with a thunderous hit that required a stretcher to remove its victim from the ice. And these are just a few of the incidents worth mentioning.

The punishments from much-criticized NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan did not asuage the controversies; Weber got a minor fine, Hagelin a few games, Torres a guaranteed ban from the playoffs and probably for the first few weeks of next season as well. Don Cherry and his increasingly meatheaded subalterns on Hockey Night in Canada can mock critics of this sort of play as squeamish and pansified, but the violence and concussion-inviting flow of physical energy that was prevalent all season has taken on more dire proportions this playoff season, without a doubt.

As I had written about at the messy conclusion of last year’s contentious Stanley Cup Final between the champion Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks, the league’s evidently mandated officiating standards for the playoffs ensures this species of edge-of-injury level of play, just as it privileged the Bruins’ smash-mouthed physical intimidation approach over the puck-possession skill game of the Canucks last spring. Neither of last year’s finalists survived the first round this time around, however, victims in both cases of a beast once believed buried but now horribly resurrected by the NHL’s laissez-faire approach to physical play in the playoffs: the smothering defensive tentacles of the dreaded neutral-zone trap.

Hossa is thinking, 'Sure, this is gonna suck, but just think: I could have been playing in Winnipeg!'

Although the defensive approach embraced by many of the teams in the second round this playoff season is perhaps not strictly similar to the much-maligned system that the millenial-era New Jersey Devils rode to three Cups, it definitely seeks to strangle offensive sorties with strict positional play in the defensive zone and strong goaltending, as well as blatant obstruction, if that is what is required to win. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun noted this trend as the Western Conference finals wrapped up with four Southern US teams (Nashville, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Los Angeles) that employ varying degress of defence-first approaches emerging victorious, sending recently perennial West competitors home early (Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit, and San Jose). This was not limited to the West, either; the Bruins in particular saw their scorers bunched in and limited by the brutal system of Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter, who has completed the makeover of a hyper-skilled roster into a limpid, freedom-limiting weighted-net ensemble (and sliced down Alex Ovechkin’s ice time drastically as a result).

Ultimately, what the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs are demonstrating most succinctly through one round of elimination contests is the contradictory and perhaps untenable position that the NHL has forged for its still-popular product (in some markets, anyway). After the lockout in 2004-05, the league came back with stricter rules concerning obstruction and encouraging scoring to restore the tarnished polish of its game. This freed up the pace of play but also lead to greater speed, bigger hits, and a concussion problem that has become endemic. With revenues now stable-to-strong in the major markets (and propping up the zombie Southern franchises through revenue sharing), the league has gradually and quietly rolled back its reforms, allowing neo-trapping to return but not much addressing the headshot problem that threatens to undermine the league in the legal arena as it has for the NFL.

All of these niggling issues were united in Torres’ hit and must have played into his ludicrously overwrought 25-game suspension. Torres was a repeat offender, and there were specific problems with the hit, of course, which was brutal in its intent, execution, and results. But here was a player on the roster of an organization that has been a demonstrable financial failure for a decade, an organization owned and operated by the league for two full seasons, supported by the profits of more successful ones, and not allowed by the league to move to a market where it might be successful, on its way to its first ever second-round playoff appearance by employing the stifling neo-trap defensive system discussed above, and he injures one of the league’s offensive stars with a borderline hit. Of course the punishment for Torres would be extreme; too many major anxieties were operative in one spotlighted event.

I don’t mean to suggest, exactly, that the Phoenix Coyotes’ ownership situation (or lack thereof) added extra games onto Raffi Torres’ suspension for a questionable on-ice hit. But on hockey’s biggest stage, the NHL must feel that it needs to protect its image above all. Who knows what other blemishes in its complexion it will feel compelled to cover up before the Cup is handed out in a month or so? Nothing to do but watch, cheer, and wait.

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Categories: Sports
  1. Sean Breslin
    April 28, 2012 at 11:36 am

    Great recap! It was a very exciting first round, and hopefully the postseason only gets better from here.

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