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Trap-happy Lightning killing excitement of NHL playoffs

Pavel Kubina and the Lightning have held Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals offense in check. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

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Pavel Kubina and the Lightning have held Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals offense in check. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Well, this has turned out to be a bit of a downer, hasn’t it? After arguably the most entertaining first round of the playoffs ever, the second round so far has been pockmarked by snoozefests. Who would have ever thought two dynamic and skilled teams such as the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings would produce such eye-glazing results?

After posting an average of 5.7 goals per game in Round 1, the first combined seven games of Round 2 have averaged just 4.3 per game and that’s including a 10-goal outing in Game 1 of the Boston-Philadelphia series.

And even though the Tampa Bay Lightning scored seven goals (one into an empty net and two flukes) in the first two games of their series against the Washington Capitals, they’re the worst offenders.

It’s also why they must be stopped. Those of us who have grown fond of the more freewheeling style of hockey that has been played post-lockout now have a moral duty to scream our lungs out cheering for the Washington Capitals to somehow come back and win this series. Of course, the Capitals aren’t exactly the offensive juggernaut they once were and their new style that focuses more on defense has obviously served them well, but they might want to move the puck a little more quickly through the defensive and neutral zones so the Lightning don’t have the opportunity to set up their stultifying 1-3-1 defensive system. And, for the record, referring to it as 1-3-1 rather than a trap is tantamount to putting lipstick on a pig.

The way to beat Tampa’s system is to do exactly what Randy Jones did on the Lightning’s overtime goal - get the puck moving up ice as quickly as possible. If the other team is going to essentially give you three-quarters of the ice surface, perhaps it would be a good idea to use it to your advantage. If the Capitals continue to betray their skill level by playing into the Lightning’s system, they’ll be staring down the barrel of another colossal playoff failure.

We know this much about Lightning coach Guy Boucher; he is incredibly intelligent and a very, very good coach. We know that despite the fact he’s a rookie behind an NHL bench, he seems to have the art of playing the playoff mind game down to a science. We also know he’s a disciple of Jacques Lemaire when it comes to coaching. Enough said.

Now please, dear readers, do not construe this as your trusty correspondent having a hate-on for the Lightning or Boucher. In fact, the polar opposite is the case. Anyone who can rise as successfully and quickly as Boucher has is obviously someone to be admired and the injection of life into the franchise by owner Jeff Vinik and GM Steve Yzerman after the Len Barrie-Oren Koules debacle can be nothing but good for the game as a whole.

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The thing I worry about most is the NHL is a copycat league and if other GMs and coaches see Boucher and the Lightning having a lot of success by clogging up the neutral zone and constructing the Maginot Line at their own blueline, they will be tempted/pressured into employing the same tactics. And why wouldn’t they? Lemaire is one of the greatest hockey minds of his generation and Boucher and other coaches would be smart to take several pages from his playbook.

But if that happens, we risk going back to the days of the Dead Puck Era without the hooking, holding and obstruction - although it seems the standards on that particular front have eroded somewhat, but that’s an argument for another day.

And while we’re on the subject, am I the only one who thinks shots that actually hit the net and make the goaltender work are far more exciting than watching some poor schlep put his face in front of it? I hate blocked shots and they’re as responsible for the decline in offense as anything. I have no idea what can be done to curb them, but I’m beginning to think what was once considered an outlandish idea from Bob Gainey about penalizing anyone who leaves his feet to block a shot is now something worth examining more closely.

But for now, let’s focus on what we can change. If you love offensive, entertaining hockey focus all your energies on cheering against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The same organization that won a Stanley Cup living by the mantra “Safe is Death” has become a poster child for a style of hockey a lot of people don’t ever want to see again.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear every Monday throughout the season.

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