What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, the Stanley Cup playoffs meant that televisions were fired up across the land, with wide-eyed audiences held captive by the white-knuckled intensity they watched build up on the ice. The games were end-to-end, knock ’em down drag ’em out affairs, with gloves off and fists a-flyin’. But those days are long gone.
Nowadays you’ll see more punches thrown— and landed— in a daily session of the Russian government. But fistic intimidation is virtually nonexistent in today’s version of playoff hockey— a far cry from the old days, when a playoff game meant a three-and-a-half-hour parade to the sin bin and a bushelful of bouts featuring the league’s best heavies chuckin’ knuckles for keeps.
Just 10 years ago there were 79 fights in the second season. Bitter rivals Boston and Buffalo hooked up in a classic series that saw 16 bouts in four games, including seven in one contest. Bruins fans no doubt remember bruiser Jay Miller going toe-to-toe with Sabre slugger Kevin Maguire in three brutal brawls that had ’em rockin’ in Beantown. Miller went on to rack up eight fighting majors in that year’s playoffs. To put it in perspective, the Ottawa Senators this year had 15 fights all season long.
Today, playoff hockey is a much tamer beast, with teams trying to ride a wave of self-discipline and on-ice composure to the Cup Finals and their shot at glory. Back in the day there were more fights than goals in a game— that was old-time hockey! Two lads strappin’ it on and trading haymakers, not willing to budge an inch while firing salvos for their respective clubs. Now you may get a token fight or two per series— if you’re lucky.
The league’s hurried implementation of the two-referee system for every game in the playoffs has made the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup a glorified show for special teams, with clubs notching nine or 10 power-play chances a game. That’s almost a full period’s worth of action! The playoffs are at their best when it’s either five-on-five or four-on-four hockey. That’s when you see action from one net to the other, end-to-end rushes and great team play that works any crowd into a frenzy— now that’s NHL hockey.
The modern playoff product is looking more and more like rugby on skates, as teams maul away in tightly packed huddles of aggression, keeping the gloves on for fear of giving their opponent yet another power-play opportunity.
No series better illustrates this than the Colorado-Detroit showdown. The best rivalry in the game, another head-to-head clash of NHL titans who want nothing more than to rip out the other guy’s jugular and feed it to him raw, right? Not really; it’s more of a glove-in-the-yap bonanza. In Game 2, as Detroit was finishing up a solid shutout win over the Avs, Colorado spark plug Dale Hunter skated up to Wings’ goalie Bill Ranford and slewfooted him to the ice. The result was a pair of roughing minors to each club. HA! This is a goalie we’re talking about. Not too long ago Hunter’s actions would have conjured up a scene close to World War III, with everybody going at it tooth and nail.
In Game 3, Av winger Theo Fluery got high-sticked in the mug, causing two ugly cuts. No physical reply from Colorado at all, they just went out and scored on the ensuing power play (and Fluery got the goal, by the way). Bluntly put: these days, eating it on the scoreboard is much more intimidating than eating a left uppercut. Through the middle of the second round of this year’s playoffs there has been exactly one matching set of fighting majors given out. It was in the first round between Phoenix’s Keith Tkachuk and St. Louis’s Ricard Persson. One fight, and it’s not even a heavyweight matchup at that! I think John Kordic just rolled over in his grave.
Here’s the skinny on the second season’s only bout to date:
April 25 Keith Tkachuk (pho) vs. Ricard Persson (stl)
A high-strung series between the Blues and Coyotes produces this lone playoff shoot-out— a fight that sees the rugged Tkachuk and softie Persson emerging from, what else, a scrum in front of the net. They trade jabs in a brief clash that Tkachuk wins on points by wrestling Persson to the ice. St. Louis netminder Grant Fuhr comes out to join the fray and grabs a body, causing Phoenix cagemaster Nikoli Khabibulin to skate the length of the ice and clamp onto Fuhr in a way-too-dramatic show of solidarity. Order is quickly restored and then I’m sure there was a power play or something.
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