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Madden: Playoff hockey becomes Dullsville

Saturday, April 21, 2001

It's not hockey. It's playoff hockey.

And it stinks.

The NHL likes to put forth that Stanley Cup playoff hockey is a different variation of the game. It's a war. It's about grit and guts, not skill and skating. Put the whistles away and let the players settle it. The best team doesn't win. The best men do. One goal should be enough to win.

All that is true. Playoff hockey is very different from regular-season hockey. NHL coaches, players and officials buy into the twisted hype, and it becomes reality. Even Mario Lemieux, the game's most-skilled offensive player, endorses his team playing a more conservative style in the postseason. The game changes greatly.

But not for the better. Playoff hockey is dull and unimaginative.

The drama of a championship-determining situation and the contempt the familiarity of a best-of-seven series between two teams can breed sometimes makes up for the lackluster style. But playoff hockey is too often an endless series of dump it in, dump it out. Protect a lead, don't extend it. Take advantage of the laissez-faire refereeing to hook, hold, grab and interfere. Don't play to win. Play to not lose.

The most entertaining hockey played this spring has been in the Edmonton-Dallas series -- the Oilers, God bless 'em, find a way to emphasize skill in any setting -- and in situations where one team got ahead by a fair margin, thus forcing the opposition to play more offensive hockey.

When Washington led the Penguins by two in the third period of Game 4 Wednesday, the Penguins decided to play with flair and creativity befitting their talent level. They put together chance after chance, tying the score, 3-3, before losing in overtime. When Detroit led Los Angeles, 3-0, late in Game 4 of their first-round series Wednesday, the Kings went on a serious attacking spree -- they even pulled their goalie with three minutes left -- and wound up stealing a 4-3 overtime victory.

But going into last night's, er, "action," there had been an average of just 4.7 goals in 35 NHL playoff games. That's bad. You can watch soccer and see that many goals.

I love hockey more than any sport. But I don't want to see a war. I want to see a game. I actually prefer skill and skating to grit and guts. Call me crazy, but I would rather watch Lemieux stickhandle than watch Steve Konowalchuk work hard along the boards. Is there something wrong with me?

I can't believe that the NHL wants its game to morph in such inferior fashion during the playoffs.

But I really can't believe that the Penguins have gone so conservative. The Penguins have atypical talent, but they're playing typical playoff hockey. They're intentionally minimizing the impact of players such as Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev. That's not too smart.

Some say it's impossible for one team to open up the game if the other team won't allow it. Rubbish. The Penguins constantly dictated the flow in the early '90s, and did so with a team only a bit more offensively gifted than the current squad. Sometimes, they went conservative if they were playing poorly. But that was a last resort. Flying high was the preferred mode of transportation.

If the Penguins are going to play typical playoff hockey, what's the point of having all those skilled forwards? Keep Lemieux as the token drawing card, get rid of Jagr, Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang, then bring in a half-dozen Konowalchuks. That would be cheaper, if nothing else. If you're going to grind it out in the playoffs, you'd better have a lot of grinders.

Perhaps the Penguins' flurry of offense at the end of Game 4 showed them the light. Perhaps the Penguins will come out firing for Game 5 today. Perhaps they'll finally take advantage of the marvelous array of offensive talent they have at their disposal. They shouldn't abandon the left-wing lock. They shouldn't forget about defense. But they should be creative with the puck. They should stickhandle, pass and shoot. The Penguins should play Penguins hockey.

If the Penguins do that and lose, well, at least they'll be eliminated on their own terms. It looks like they're in danger of being eliminated while playing on the Capitals' terms, anyway.

It is so tough to love hockey sometimes. Hockey is a rare blend of nonstop action combined with physical contact. It's the best sport when it's played the right way.

But it isn't played the right way nearly often enough.

When I see Trevor Linden dig a hook into Lemieux and water-ski behind him for 20 feet, I wonder why Lemieux bothered coming back. When I see all of these low-scoring playoff games featuring teams that sit back instead of trying to manufacture opportunities, I wonder why I bother watching. It's the most exciting time of the year for hockey, but that's by default. It should be a lot more exciting.

It's not hockey. It's playoff hockey.

Most nights, watching it isn't even worth being a no-show at a Pirates game at PNC Park.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard from 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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