You might recall the time immediately following the lockout that we affectionately refer to as the New NHL.
Boy did everyone hate the Old NHL. Slow and boring and defensive as hell and guys getting mugged along the boards or through the neutral zone. Thus, the league insisted that, after the lockout, to make people care about the sport again, it had to start calling the pettiest of stick infractions every time they happened. Hooking, or, as officials in the 2005-06 season called it, making the slightest bit of contact on an opponent with a slightly elevated stick, was called more than twice as often as it had been in the five seasons preceding the lockout. And this, predictably, led to a lot of power plays, which in turn led to a lot of power play goals. (The puck over the glass rule helped too, but not as much as you might think. It is, of course, fairly difficult to calculate the effects of the “no change after icing” rule being put into place.)
The point, I guess, is that in the immediate wake of the lockout, the number of goals per game jumped to 6.17 from 5.14 in 2003-04. Was it a cheap way to do it? Yes. Was it an effective way of artificially increasing offense without fundamentally changing too much of the game? Sure. People, they tell me, like goals, and so the NHL provided them in droves, at least compared to the previous half-decade, and that trend continued, somewhat for the following few years.
But what many have noted is that since about the 2009-10 season, goalscoring has plummeted. That 6.17 per game number was never sustainable and games were taking far too long to complete, but after a 26.8 percent increase between ’07-08 and ’08-09, things got decidedly quieter.
Now, it’s no revelation that goalscoring is down league-wide. In fact, the two teams in the Stanley Cup Final last season were the two best defensively, and that was for a very good reason: they were very focused on defense, and built their offenses out from there. But in doing so, they were also dominant in the attacking zone. Vancouver had the best offense in the league at 3.15 goals per game. Boston was fifth at 2.98 per. So even though these were two stalwart defensive teams, fans tuning in for the Cup Finals were more or less also promised goals (not that they got it though, as probably no one counted on just 31 between the two of them, the result of four shutouts, in seven games).
That, however, wasn’t the death of arcade, goal-ridden hockey as Bettman and Co. envision it at every Camp Shanny every summer.
Apart from the fact that it’s really going to piss off the Canada-based “every team should be in Canada/no teams should be in the American South” crowd — and is therefore the best possible thing in the world — the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes meeting in the conference finals, with one of them guaranteed to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, assures us that, barring another re-emphasizing of certain rules to a ridiculous extent in the event of another work stoppage, that even-slightly-offensive hockey has gone the way of the dodo.
LA is in the Western Conference Final despite finishing the year 29th in goals per game at just 2.29, and snuck into the postseason, not surprisingly, by only allowing 2.02 per game, second-best in the NHL. Phoenix, meanwhile, was fifth in goals allowed, and just 18th in goals for. The teams they dispatched in the second round finished first and 10th in team defense, respectively, and 21st and eighth (anomalous!) in team offense.
With this in mind, we can pretty well assume that there probably won’t be too many goals to go around in the West finals, especially considering the teams are — wait for it… — first and second in playoff defense, both allowing fewer than two goals per game. Yes, Los Angeles picked apart the Blues’ best-ever single-season defense in the last round, but that was with their No. 1 goaltender replaced by Brian freakin’ Elliott and their Norris candidate No. 1 defenseman on the shelf as a result of a dirty hit by a Kings scrub in Game 1. Certainly, their 3.0 goals per game doesn’t reflect the quality of the offense they got so much as the quality of defense the Blues didn’t.
Neither Mike Smith nor Jonathan Quick seem particularly interested in hearing what opposing offenses have to say about their work, and this series certainly has the look of one that will see each of its seven games (because you know it’s going seven) 2-1 or 3-1 with an empty netter. How does either team put more than that past the other?
But okay, you’re saying. Maybe the Western Conference Finals will be a bit dull, but the team out of the East can probably save it, right? Well, funny you mention it. The Kings and Coyotes are 1-2 in team defense this postseason, and guess who’s No. 3: it’s the Rangers. No. 6 is the Capitals. And we’re already hearing from plenty of critics that their shotblocking antics are ruining hockey for purists everywhere or whatever the poorly-articulated problem they have may be.
This is the league we have these days, like it or not. You can either complain about it, deal with it, or learn to love it. But what people have to understand about defensive hockey is that it’s not, inherently at least, boring hockey. Sure, it CAN be boring. The first Caps/Rangers game was dull as they come, but there were a total of six goals in the final three games between Nashville and Phoenix, and that was some exciting hockey. My hope is that this hockey that’s going to be played over the next two weeks is both ultra-defensive and ultra-exciting. While idiots will look at the scorelines and decide, sight unseen, that these were boring games, it will vindicate this as an entertaining form of the game.
And I’ll be the only one watching.