SAN JOSE – There is no way around it, but it’s kind of a shame that the NHL’s showcase event of the season is played by guys who are more tired and banged up than they’ve been at any point in the season. It’s too bad that they play on ice that should be reserved for the local Wednesday night curling league.
And it’s become an increasingly troublesome that the league’s best players are being muzzled at a time when their talents should be on full display. The biggest stars in the league have become difference makers in the Stanley Cup final. There is absolutely no doubt about that. But the differences they’re making are dubious ones. And as a result, the Stanley Cup final is something that is to be endured.
This matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks had so much potential to be more than it has. The Sharks vowed before the series to take the Penguins time and space away from them, but it’s been the Sharks who have had an opponent in their grill every time they try to get rid of the puck in the offensive zone. There has been one lead change in the entire series and some of the biggest offensive stars in the league have gone AWOL.
This is nothing new for the final, however. It’s part of a disturbing trend that has been plaguing the final for the past number of seasons. It should surprise no one that of the past three finals, including this one, the leading scorer has been Justin Williams with two goals and six points. It should, however, come as a huge shock that Kyle Clifford is among a cluster of players tied for second with four points. That’s more than Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos and Anze Kopitar. Not a single player has hit the four-point mark in this year’s finals, meaning Clifford could also find himself ahead of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns once this is all said and done.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was asked about the dearth of scoring in the playoffs and he pointed out what a lot of people already know – that the longer a team plays in the playoffs, the more difficult it gets to score goals. And the stars are the subjects of the most attention from opponents.
“When I say I think it’s the hardest hockey that I’ve witnessed in this league…it seems like both teams have to fight for every inch out there,” Sullivan said. “That’s just the type of hockey that it’s become. It’s not an easy environment. It’s hard hockey.”
It’s also hard to watch sometimes. The problem is that the better the players and the better they are coached, the less compelling the hockey they play becomes. And when you get to the stage where you have the best team in the Western Conference playing the best team in the Eastern Conference, it doesn’t get much better or better coached than that. The most exciting hockey is played when the pace of the game is elevated and teams make mistakes because of it. You’re not going to find that happening with players this good.
“As talented as both of these teams are offensively, this is something we’ve said to our team all year long, it doesn't matter how many goals we score, we have to learn how to defend,” Sullivan said. “We have to learn how to make a commitment to keeping the puck out of our net.”
This style of hockey is the kind of game that “hockey people” who run the NHL just love. That’s why when you go to a practice, you rarely see anyone out on the ice helping young people score, but you’ll find three coaches working with them to teach them how to keep the puck out of the net. It’s why Sean Couturier was picked for Team North America for the World Cash Grab of Hockey™ this fall over a number of more dynamic players. Heck, it’s the reason Kessel was snubbed and Justin Abdelkader was included on Team USA.
It’s not pretty, but it’s the kind of hockey that wins. And at this stage of the playoffs, teams owe their fans a Stanley Cup parade more than a bunch of pretty plays. But until something changes, get used to the Stanley Cup final being less than it should be, less than it could be. And be prepared to watch the stars of the league take a backseat role.