Ryan Malone of the Penguins sets up in front of goaltender Chris Osgood and Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings during Game 4. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
DETROIT - This has not been the close Stanley Cup final many hoped for when two high-powered offenses like the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins hooked up.
In fact, there is a good chance it’ll all be over on Monday.
But here’s the thing – the hockey has been great. The NHL appears to be inching closer and closer to what it set out to accomplish following the lockout with a greater emphasis in speed and skill.
Saturday night’s 2-1 victory for Detroit is a perfect example. Ten years ago, during the dead-puck era, a 2-1 game very likely would have been a slow death on a stick, fraught with clutching and grabbing and precious few scoring chances. But that was not the case in Game 4.
Yes, it was a close-checking game. Freeing up the game’s best players to skate unobstructed does not mean defense goes out the window. But there were plenty of scoring chances for both teams, right up until the dying seconds of the game when the Penguins came within a whisker of forcing overtime during a goal-mouth scramble.
Even though the Red Wings have been the dominant team in this series, the Penguins have had their chances. In Game 1, for example, the Red Wings put the Penguins on the power play three times since the first period. Pittsburgh could easily have gone up 1-0 or 2-0.
Same with Game 2. Although the Penguins were again shut out, Ryan Malone had a glorious opportunity to put his team up early, but had the puck bounce over his stick when he was left unguarded in the slot. Seconds later Sidney Crosby came close to scoring on a wrap-around.
The point is, what was referred to as the ‘New NHL’ has made hockey fun to watch again. And there was a time, not so long ago, when the Stanley Cup final had become a colossal bore. Third- and fourth-liners were as important to the outcome of games as the stars, sometimes more important. That is no longer the case.
I laugh when people suggest hitting is now gone from the game. Are you kidding me? Niklas Kronwall has been a hitting machine in the final. Brooks Orpik dished out five his on one shift in Game 3. Gary Roberts mows down anything that gets in his path.
It took a while for the game to get to this point and there were most certainly growing pains.
When the NHL started up again after the lockout, referees called everything. It was frustrating for the players, the coaches, the managers and the fans. But the league had a vision of where it wanted to be down the road and this was the price that had to be paid to get there.
Gradually the league has eased off on the standard for calls. There are more battles along the boards for loose pucks as well as in front of the net.
Tomas Holmstrom doesn’t stand in front of the net with the opposing defenseman using a feather duster on him, but he also doesn’t pee blood anymore from taking shot after shot to the kidneys.
Players now understand if they use their free hand to impede an opponent, they will be penalized virtually every time. Hook an opponent and you’re gone for two.
Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are the best two players in the NHL and Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are not far behind. But if the NHL had not changed the way games are called, you would not be witnessing them working the magic they have worked this season. They would have been grinded into the ice; hooked and held at every turn.
And that would have been a travesty.
Hockey had become barbaric with skill taking a backseat to thuggery. Make no mistake about it, the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup last season and their calling card was toughness. But they also had plenty of skill. Scott Niedermayer…Chris Pronger…Teemu Selanne…Corey Perry…Ryan Getzlaf…Andy MacDonald…Chris Kunitz and so on. The Ducks fought more than any other team, but it was the skill that won them the Cup.
NHL hockey is not perfect. It is becoming increasingly obvious that goaltender’s equipment has to be smaller or the nets have to be bigger – or both. But this game is moving in the right direction.
I would have loved a seven-game final this season and that isn’t likely to happen. But I’m satisfied with the direction the game is headed.
Even a little excited.
THN senior writer Mike Brophy is on the road following the Stanley Cup final and will be filing daily reports until a champion is crowned. To read his other entries, click HERE.
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