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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Talent no longer a factor

Creativity void making playoff games painful to watch

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To fully appreciate the bizarro world the NHL playoffs has become, let's return to April of this year and revisit the prevailing wisdom which existed prior to the start of the Stanley Cup tournament.

Remember? At the onset of the first round, the Pittsburgh Penguins were deemed the massive favourites to win the Cup and, perhaps, re-establish their dynastic aspirations, interrupted by an injury to their leading man Sidney Crosby.

Beyond the Penguins, there was some support for the Vancouver Canucks, who were coming off their second straight Presidents' Trophy. The Boston Bruins were the defending champs and couldn't be discounted. Others liked St. Louis, who'd turned into a nasty bit of business under Ken Hitchcock. A number of pundits picked the Nashville Predators, who'd added size and skill at the trade deadline to augment their formidable core group.

Yes, at the time, it all seemed clear. Now? Geez Louise, how do you make sense of this?

As much as the post-season can be counted on for one or two surprises most years, the totality of what we've witnessed thus far is difficult to comprehend. In the West, the marquee teams -- Vancouver, St. Louis, Nashville, Chicago and Detroit -- are long gone. Left standing are the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings, who suddenly look like a powerhouse after dispatching the Canucks and Blues; and, lest we forget, the mighty Phoenix Coyotes.

Los Angeles and Phoenix in the Western Conference final. No matter how many times you say it, it just doesn't sound right.

In the East, it's been just as goofy. The Penguins, of course, were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers who looked for all the world like the team to beat two weeks ago. They're reign as a league power, alas, was short-lived as they were bounced by the New Jersey Devils in five games. The defending champion Bruins were sent packing by the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round. The Caps are now one game away from ousting the top-seeded Rangers.

That would leave the sixth-seeded Devils against the seventh-seed Capitals in the Eastern final.

Of course it would.

Individually, it's been just as weird.

The Flyers' Claude Giroux upstaged Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the Flyers-Pens series and was summarily christened the game's best player by his coach Peter Laviolette. If we follow the line of succession, does this mean Travis Zajac is now the best player in the game?

The leading candidates for the Conn Smythe, meanwhile, are the five remaining goalies, led by the Kings' Jonathan Quick. The best skater, has likely been the Kings' Dustin Brown. The best defenceman? Take a bow Willie Mitchell, also of the Kings.

As for the stars, there's exactly one player still alive in the playoffs who averaged a point a game in the regular season: Ilya Kovalchuk of the Devils.

So what does all this mean? Is this just one of those kooky years where funny things happen? Or is this reflective of a larger, and more disturbing, trend within the game?

Let's answer that this way. You have to go back to the height of the dead-puck era to find a comparable number of playoff upsets. The 2002 Carolina Hurricanes, '03 Anaheim Ducks and the '04 Calgary Flames all made it to the Cup final by playing a similar style and, if you needed reminding, it's the same style that's in vogue this spring.

The goalie is surrounded and protected like a queen ant. There is little creative play with the puck. It's just get the thing to the net, bang and crash and hope for the best.

In this world, talent is important. It's just not nearly as important as it should be.

Washington has made it this far by playing Alex Ovechkin less and Brooks Laich and Jay Beagle more. We're not sure how to explain the Coyotes. The Kings look like the team to beat.

But here's the thing that tells you all you need to know about these playoffs -- the Devils are the most exciting team still alive.

That's great for the Devils and we can be happy for the long-suffering fans in L.A., and Phoenix. But the point is, the game as it's currently being played is not entertaining and is unattractive to virtually every hockey fan outside of the markets involved.

In Canada, we watch because we care. Elsewhere, they need a reason to care and the game isn't providing it. The NBA is heading toward a final with LeBron and the Heat against Kobe and the Lakers or Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City or something equally appealing.

The NHL?

You've got to really like goalies to keep paying attention.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2012 C2

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