Phoenix's Ed Jovanovski battles in front with Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
There’s been something creeping back into NHL games this post-season that just doesn’t fly in the regular season. In the first seven months these plays would be called as penalties more often than not, but in the playoffs the players are being given much more leeway.
And I love it.
There have been some great battles for position in front of the net and most of the matchups have been allowed to breathe. If a player wants to stand directly in front of your goalie to distract him or screen a shot, you should absolutely be able to push him out or knock him down – whatever it takes to get him out of there.
The best of the bunch has easily come from the Detroit-Phoenix series. Tomas Holmstrom, known for his front-of-the-net positioning, has been taking a beating from Coyotes defensemen Ed Jovanovski and Adrian Aucoin.
Game 2 of that series was the most exciting NHL match I’ve seen so far this season and I had to rub my eyes and shake my head during the second period to make sure I was actually seeing what I was watching. Not only was it back-and-forth all period long, but man oh man, bodies were being dropped and no arm bands were up in the air.
I’m glad to see this part of the action creeping back in the game. This is the time of year where you have to fight for every inch of ice you get, especially at the top of the blue ice. It does no harm to the play and, if anything, helps curb controversial goaltender interference plays. It may create more scrums after the whistle, but hey, this is playoff hockey and if that’s what you want to complain about, have a seat.
As the playoffs move forward, though, I hope we keep seeing these plays allowed, but with more consistency. In Monday night’s Buffalo-Boston game Andrej Sekera took an interference penalty for knocking his man down in front of the net, which really set a tone. In the Detroit-Phoenix series that’s a good play; but Monday it was a weak call against a player for being strong.
In fact, at one point in that Buffalo-Boston game I couldn’t believe how wide open the Sabres were in front of the net. Often there’d be someone standing right on top of Tuukka Rask’s crease without a Bruins defenseman within earshot. It got to the point where, after the second period ended, Rask appealed to the referee about interference in front. Well, maybe Rask should be having a talk with his defensemen; there’s no reason why Zdeno Chara shouldn’t be down there playing the role of Plow King.
But it’s not just the battles for position in front of the net I’m loving: it’s the plays on the puck as well.
Early in Game 3 of the Vancouver-Los Angeles, Alex Edler (where did this guy’s devastating physical game come from?) hammered Ryan Smyth in the corner. Now, Smyth didn’t have the puck on his stick yet, but the two were battling for position and Smyth was knocked off. Even though he got his bell rung, I doubt ‘Captain Canada’ would call that hit a cheap or illegal play.
And of course, back in the Buffalo-Boston tilt, Mark Recchi’s play on Tim Kennedy ultimately earned the Bruins a series lead.
While the two hadn’t actually touched the puck yet, they were going in headstrong and looked at each other on the way in. Recchi, bigger, stronger and more experienced, just had the step, angle and position on Kennedy. It wasn’t interference, it was a battle for the puck and Kennedy lost it at the worst possible time.
Up until that point, I found the third period of the game uneventful. Sure, it was a good game, but it needed some life and Recchi’s goal and hit provided that. The very next whistle there was a huge scrum where everyone dropped their gloves and a fight eventually broke out. You want rivalries? You let these physical battles play out.
So while we’re still looking for some consistency from series to series, I can appreciate the fact that each matchup has a different vibe and has to be managed in its own way by the officials.
But as teams get knocked off and there are fewer series, I hope we trend towards more leeway for battles in front of the net and on the puck and not the other way around, where the most valuable piece of real estate in the offensive zone is a rulebook-given right.
THN Puck Panel: Is officiating double-standard good for the game?
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
THN.com's Playoff Blogs, featuring analysis and opinion on the action, with insight on what happened and what it all means going forward, will appear daily throughout the NHL playoffs. Read more entries HERE.
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