PITTSBURGH – The Stanley Cup final has become a microcosm of the trend in hockey. Coaches suffocate play because defense is more important than offense to their job security, and goaltenders with overstuffed equipment are more and more difficult to beat.
Nowadays, a good shot that beats a goaltender clean is usually referred to as a bad goal if it’s unscreened. It used to just be a good shot. A goal is as likely to be scored on some random deflection than on some highlight-reel passing play.
Entering Game Five Thursday night in Consol Energy Center, with the Pittsburgh Penguins looking to clinch against the San Jose Sharks, the trend is clear. In the last 13 Cup final games, just once has a team scored as many as four goals. Yes, once. That came in Game Two last year, when Tampa Bay overcame Chicago, 4-3. Starting with Game Three in 2014 between Los Angeles and the New York Rangers, going through the Chicago-Tampa Bay series and adding this year’s Pittsburgh-San Jose matchup, the scores look like this:
• Los Angeles-New York: 3-0, 2-1, 3-2.
• Chicago-Tampa Bay: 2-1, 4-3, 3-2, 2-1, 2-1, 2-0.
• Pittsburgh-San Jose: 3-2, 2-1, 3-2, 3-1, 4-2.
That’s simply not good enough to showcase the league and its stars.
Fans of defense and goaltending shouldn’t fret. I’m not advocating every game be 7-5 or 8-6, although plenty of folks would be thrilled if that were the case. But shouldn’t we get there once in a while? Don’t the NBA and NFL do everything they can to make sure the stars score and are front and center when the most eyeballs are watching?
Offense in the NHL’s regular season was at 5.42 goals per game, its lowest rate since 2003-04, or before the first lockout when the league allegedly fixed the trend by clamping down on obstruction. Those days are long gone, of course. But even more than that, coaches and general managers are on a complete defense-first kick. It’s job self-preservation. Keep games tight, have more chances to win.
The offside challenge is one of the worst things to ever come into the NHL. It takes away offense at a time the league needs more. It ruins the fan experience when a goal is scored. But most coaches and GMs are all for it because they feel the heat to survive and don’t want to get beat on a goal that’s offside by a sliver not discernible in real time.
And, after all, Gary Bettman said here last week the coach’s challenge is “achieving the objectives” the league was looking for. Whatever that means.
Asked during this series about the trend away from offense – even though he’s coaching a team full of speed and stars – Penguins coach Mike Sullivan sounded like, well, a coach.
“I think the deeper you get in the playoffs, the better the teams are, the deeper they are, and the harder they defend,” Sullivan said. “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. We have to learn how to make a commitment to keeping the puck out of our net.
“I know this team can score. When we start making a commitment to playing away from the puck, keeping the puck out of our net, now we become a team that’s, in our opinion, a contender.”
Admittedly, goaltenders are far more skilled nowadays than in the past. Every team has multiple goaltending coaches in both the NHL and minor-league levels. The top teams have three solid pairs of defensemen, and it’s not like you can easily take advantage of the Nos. 5-6 guys on the blueline. Or the fourth line of forwards. They’re not goons who can’t skate.
Still, the trend is disturbing in the final. Steven Stamkos didn’t score last year for Tampa and Patrick Kane didn’t connect for Chicago until his Game Six clincher. Rookie Connor Sheary is the only Pittsburgh player with two goals in the first four games of this series. For all his terrific 200-foot play, Sidney Crosby did not score.
It’s even worse on the San Jose side. The Sharks’ goals in the first four games are two by Justin Braun and one each by Joonas Donskoi, Joel Ward, Patrick Marleau, Tomas Hertl and Melker Karlsson. Which means none for Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture or Brent Burns.
“The way hockey goes is all the best players get the recognition,” said Sharks defenseman Marc-Eduoard Vlasic. “Obviously, they get points and are on the scoresheet, but sometimes it’s the role players, the depth players that do the damage because everybody’s concentrating on the star players. That’s why both teams have great depth and Pittsburgh has been relying on that throughout the playoffs.”
“The top players get the most attention from the better defenders,” Sullivan said. “It doesn’t surprise me that goals are hard to come by because both teams are making a sincere commitment to playing away from the puck. 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. That’s just the type of hockey that it’s become. It’s not an easy environment.”
Both teams were 1 for 8 on the power play in the first four games. Defense and goaltending make things tough there as well. So does the officiating. If you want more goals, you need to give teams an average of more than two man-advantage chances per game.
There’s plenty of chatter here that one thing the league can look at is a softening of the goalposts. Former NHL forward Ray Ferraro, now an analyst for TSN in Canada, said during the series that angling the posts so more pucks go into the net, rather than bouncing out or away, could be a simple but practical solution. The goaltenders will be reined in this summer and should look a little more svelte in the net come fall. That should help too.
But this is an institutional problem without easy solutions. The thought was a Penguins Cup would be good for hockey because they play with speed and offense at the forefront. Hasn’t worked out that way in this series.