It’s beginning to look a lot like 2003.
With the Philadelphia Flyers one game away from elimination in the 2012 NHL playoffs, it’s clear that the defence-first style of play that characterized the so-called dead puck era prior to the 2004 lockout is back in full force.
So much for the “fastest game on ice” slogan the NHL had been trying to promote. Scoring is down, goalies are putting up staggering statistics and teams that invested big dollars on skill and speed have all been eliminated.
The Los Angeles Kings, who had the 29th-ranked offence this year, advanced to the Conference Finals Sunday afternoon by sweeping the St. Louis Blues, a team that had allowed only two goals a game in the regular season.
The Phoenix Coyotes, a franchise owned by the NHL and featuring only one player that managed to muster over 70 points in the regular season, can join them with a win over the Nashville Predators Monday night. A grand total of three goals have been scored in the last two games of that series.
Even the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals are putting on a defensive show, with Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist sporting a 1.68 goals-against average and Caps rookie netminder Braden Holtby at 1.94. Let’s put it this way – first team to score twice wins.
But the surest sign that Dead Puck Era II is upon us? The fact that the New Jersey Devils are back in the Cup conversation. The Devils used the neutral-zone trap to sleepwalk their way to the Stanley Cup in 1995, 2000 and 2003. After signing free agent Ilya Kovalchuk to a ridiculous 15-year, $100 million contract, the Devils were in such cap trouble last year that they couldn’t ice a full team for some games and subsequently missed the playoffs. The franchise appeared doomed for a generation.
So this year, with their Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur turning 40 and a roster of bargain-basement fill-ins surrounding their high-cap talent, the Devils went back to what worked for them in the past – boring, defence-first hockey based on keeping the puck out of their net at all costs and creating offence by forcing opponents to make mistakes.
And sure enough, they are a game away from eliminating the Flyers and advancing to the Conference Finals for the first time since using their suffocating D to win it all in 2003.
It’s the same template being used by Los Angeles and Phoenix. Their defensive systems have made goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Mike Smith look like Vezina candidates. Smith, remember, was a career backup who couldn’t cut it with Tampa Bay, but he now sports a 1.85 GAA and .946 save percentage in these playoffs.
It shouldn’t be surprising given the cast of coaches orchestrating this mess. Ken Hitchcock, who won a Cup with Dallas during the dead puck era but couldn’t adjust to the skill game in Philadelphia or Columbus, almost won the President’s Trophy with the Blues and strangled San Jose in the first round. Darryl Sutter, whose defensive system led the Calgary Flames to Game 7 of the Cup final just prior to the lockout now has the Kings on the same path. And that tall guy standing next to coach Peter DeBoer on the New Jersey bench? Yep, that’s Larry Robinson, who was an assistant coach with the Devils when they won in 1995 and head coach when they won in 2000.
Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
While it might be good for the NHL to have non-traditional hockey markets like Nashville, Phoenix and Los Angeles competing for the Cup, the league can’t be happy with the fact that skill and speed has taken a back seat to system-oriented stalemates yet again.
Because even the most hardcore fans won’t embrace another dead puck era.