We’ve met plenty of National Hockey League coaches and GMs along the way, and we’ve yet to meet the one who cares more about entertaining than he does about winning.
Provide a “brand” of hockey that’s pleasing to the eye? Sure, but only if they can do that while winning. Because winning means working.
Besides, they all know the home fans in each of 30 NHL cities will leave happy after a 1-0, low-shots, victory, and call it “a hard fought game with excellent goaltending.” If fans in other markets find that style boring, well, they’re not buying tickets in our rink, any NHL exec would say.
The league sets the parameters on how the game can be played then coaches take that template and figure out how to win with it.
Jacques Lemaire did just that, dragging the game to a stultifying state of dreariness along the way. So did Ken Hitchcock in Dallas. But should they care? In fact, they probably can’t hear us anyhow, with their Stanley Cup rings plugging their ears.
So Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi, two men whom I’ve always had a great amount of respect for, have done exactly what they get paid to do: find the winning formula in Los Angeles.
It goes something like this:
— Draft a great goaltender.
— Build a big, strong, disciplined team.
— Play a system that gives the opponent absolutely zero space and time in all areas of the ice.
— Be stronger and grittier, so that you win the majority of the puck battles created by this system.
— Have enough talented players up front that you can squeeze two goals out of 25 shots per night.
The fact that large tracts of each Kings game are played in neutral ice, with two teams ping-ponging the puck back and forth into each other’s possession, is simply part of the process.
It is hard, heavy hockey, respected nearly unanimously by those who played the game (but who generally don’t spend a dime on tickets). It is the same way two professional arm wrestlers marvel at a 15-minute match, while an outsider would see only grunting and sweat.
The Kings are last in the NHL with an average of 24.6 shots per night during these playoffs. They rank last offensively among teams that made it past the first round, averaging exactly 2.00 goals per game in these playoffs.
Getting the puck towards the other team’s net in a dangerous fashion, an element of hockey still prized by some, is — statistically speaking – less important to the Kings than any other club.
And so they have become the New Jersey Devils of the new millennium. Or the Dallas Stars, another team whose success at squeezing the entertainment out of NHL hockey led to an overhaul of the game after the 2004-05 lockout.
It is intense and sweaty hockey to be sure. Playoff specific, as you couldn’t possibly play this way all season long.
But night after night it is the same. If you like goals, creative passing, a zone entry that requires skill, this hockey isn’t for you.
But that’s all subjective. It’s chocolate and strawberry ice cream — you like one, I like the other.
Here’s what is not subjective, however.
A crucial element in sport is unpredictability. We all love a two-hit shutout in baseball, but if we witnessed one two of every three games, it would become boring. Predictable.
Same with 2-1 playoff games in hockey. When we know that a 2-0 is insurmountable — or when the Kings-Sharks series ends and the team who scored the first goal won all seven games — a level of unpredictability is stripped away.
Early in the playoff, we asked San Jose’s Dan Boyle about the game NHLers are asked to play in 2013. The game that must be played to win.
“I’d voice my opinion on the negative side, as far as, there aren’t as many plays being made,” he said. “In the corner you see you see the rugby-type scrum, with four, five, six guys in the corner.
“I’m certainly open to the idea … of a few more plays being made.”
Hockey is, like art, an individual thing. Just because the current game doesn’t meet Boyle’s and my eye, it doesn’t mean it is bad.
What is not subjective, however, is this fact: the last time winning teams like New Jersey and Dallas played with such little offence, the league grew concerned. And the last time we recall a seven-game series when the team that scored first won all seven games was the Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup final in 2004.
That was the last of the hook-and-ride finals. The Last Great Rodeo, as it were.
When the game returned, it was vastly different.