The Malik Report
by George Malik on 04/20/12 at 01:37 AM ET
Very briefly: we’ve reached a point in the playoffs where last year’s Stanley Cup finalists, and this year’s President’s Trophy winner, in the Vancouver Canucks, the Cup champ from two years ago in the Chicago Blackhawks, the Cup champ from two seasons ago and prohibitive media Cup pick in the Pittsburgh Penguins, and of course the team I cover and cheer for in the Detroit Red Wings face 3-1 series deficits against their respective opponents, and as I’m writing this, the St. Louis Blues
are attempting to take
just took a 3-1 series lead on another contender in the San Jose Sharks.
While fans like you and me have been distracted somewhat by the level of gratuitous violence taking place this spring (and while “hit to make your opponent sore” becomes, “I’ve got to hit to hurt you and win my battle or I’m playing golf” in April, May and June, the level of disrespect between players is as silly as the inconsistency of the NHL’s disciplinary policy), the fact that Vancouver, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit and maybe even San Jose could be cleaning out their lockers before the weekend’s over is nothing less than staggering. In the West, the 1-versus-8 and 2—versus-7 series look like they may very well go to the underdog, with the 3rd-place Coyotes and 4th-place Predators pulling off “upsets,” and that alone should give us pause.
Does this stem from, as every coach and GM who gets near a a camera or a digital sound recorder will tell you, “the cap” and “parity” which have yielded a seeming year of the underdog, and “road ice advantage?” Have we reached a point where playoff seeding has simply become irrelevant due to the fact that teams who can barely scrape .500 records together can still make the playoffs thanks to 3-point games and shootout wins?
To some extent, yes. Those factors cannot be denied as looming large in the equation, as does the fact that teams draft from a pool of players that is now as deep as it was prior to the NHL’s mad expansion dash in the mid-to-late 90’s, with every country producing players who are working with strength coaches, nutritionists and skill development coaches who’ve helped make younger players “more ready” to play professional hockey earlier than ever before, as does the fact that advances in sports medicine have allowed players to play for longer than ever before, and there’s no doubt whatsoever that instantaneous digital video scouting allows coaches to react to surprising players or wrinkles in game plans while play is underway, if not, at worst, during intermissions instead of between games or over the course of a quarter to half a season.
But Scotty Bowman used to espouse a pretty simple theory when he coached the Red Wings, and I think that it applies, too. The short version goes like this: “The first round is the most dangerous round.”
The long version goes something like this: regardless of which team gains home-ice advantage, which team finishes the regular season with the best record, finishes the season with most stacked roster and/or finishes the season as healthy as possible after six-and-a-half months and 82 games, when the playoffs begin, it’s not just the scoreboard and series ledger’s “race to four wins” that are re-set to zero.
Teams and players have to adjust to playing at a playoff level of intensity, and they do so, on both individual and team-wide bases, at different developmental rates. Lower-seeded teams that earn early breaks or find surprising chemistry suddenly find themselves one or two wins closer to advancing than an opponent which may have cruised into the playoffs with their spot assured, special teams can fail and a devastating injury or two no longer means a rough couple of weeks. Even with video coaches’ DVRs cuing up the plays which resulted in pucks going into the back of their teams’ nets, the devastating blows to team confidence and plain old bad bounces on increasingly poor ice, as well as an almost inevitable return to the standard of refereeing that was more familiar to teams in October and November than February and March yield so much unpredictability, inconsistency and individual and collective variations in performance that anybody can beat anybody as teams essentially re-forge their identities and re-establish their playing styles at what is nothing less than a completely different level of play than anything that anyone without prior NHL playoff experience has ever experienced. Sometimes, depending on the match-up and the course of events over the first couple of games, the levels of intensity are even surprising to those who’ve been around forever…
And as such, the first round isn’t necessarily something won or lost, but instead, goes Bowman’s theory, something that is survived by teams that continue to play better and better hockey as they advance and the races to four become even harder-won. When we go from 16 playing teams to 8 remaining over the course of the next six days, we’re going to watch the advancing teams really establish themselves and gain their footing, yielding cleaner, more precise hockey from player—and coaches—who are fully acclimated to the kind of levels of competition, urgency, focus, attention to detail, desperation, and very regularly, hate that play huge roles in determining which of the 8 teams remaining will find themselves playing into May and June.
During the hockey season where it only takes winning four out of seven games to advance, and during a hockey season where it only takes everybody getting on the same page at the same time over the course of a few days instead of a few weeks, regardless of whether there’s a salary cap or whether there are 3-point games, the teams that adapt the fastest survive and begin to forge post-season identities in the first round, and the teams which fail to evolve end up playing golf.
It’s been that way in the NHL since Bowman started coaching the
St. Louis Blues, and it will remain that way regardless of what economic conditions the new CBA forces owners to operate under. The first round is the most dangerous round, and some years, the favorites and contenders’ Cup hopes are dashed on a highly unpredictable basis because that’s simply the nature of the 16-team mash-up’s beast.
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.