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Madden: Hockey playoffs major in boredom

Saturday, April 27, 2002

Hockey stinks.

As an avid hockey aficionado, I never thought I'd feel compelled to write the previous sentence, but the Stanley Cup playoffs this year are, so far, a microcosm of what's wrong with hockey. Going into last night's, er, action, there had been just 161 goals scored in 36 playoff games, a miniscule average of just 4.5 per game. There had been 12 shutouts, including four 1-0 games.

The playoffs have not featured defensive struggles. They have featured offensive fiascos, where teams play it safe interminably and wait for a break. Creativity in hockey is dead.

It's probably buried, too. These playoffs have me wondering if hockey can ever resurrect itself as an entertaining game. Forget about widening the rink, eliminating the red line, making the nets bigger, etc. None of that would help.

For one thing, hockey's talent pool is too diluted. There just aren't enough good players to go around. But more significant, there's no changing the mind-set of hockey's administrators, coaches and players. There's no changing the mind-set of dump it out, dump it in, play defense first. That mind-set would keep hockey low-scoring and boring even if the sport did experience significant changes.

Even some of the game's most offense-oriented minds have bought into the ultraconservative philosophy that pervades the playoffs. Phoenix Coyotes managing partner Wayne Gretzky is perhaps the most spontaneously creative mind in hockey history. Yet his team plays cookie-cutter NHL hockey. That's not an indictment of Gretzky, because the Mario Lemieux-owned Penguins don't exactly open it up like the old days, either. But when a team run by the NHL's all-time point machine chooses to bore 'em, not score 'em, that says a lot about the state of the game.

The Philadelphia Flyers' plight -- one goal in their first four playoff games against Ottawa -- is kind of funny. They are from Philadelphia, after all. Philadelphia getting shut out three consecutive times by a ham-and-egger like Senators goalie Patrick Lalime is hard to believe.

Unless you've watched the games, that is. Then you've doubtless noticed that the Flyers, despite a plethora of offensive talent featuring names like Gagne, Roenick, Recchi, LeClair and Oates, aren't really trying too hard to score. First and foremost, they're making sure they don't make a mistake defensively. As a result, Lalime, a Penguins reject, set a playoff record with three shutouts in a row. That record was tied one night later by St. Louis' Brent Johnson. Lalime and Johnson. Not exactly Dryden and Roy, eh?

Now that Detroit appears to have negated Vancouver's upset bid, the only entertaining series is Montreal-Boston. Boston's immobile defense corps presents a good matchup for the Canadiens' swift-skating forwards. The Canadiens have done their best to utilize that edge, and the result has been exciting hockey.

Of course, you don't want too much exciting hockey. So it's a good thing that Boston defenseman Kyle McLaren took the precaution of beheading Montreal's Richard Zednik with an elbow to the jaw Thursday night, thereby guaranteeing that the remainder of the series will be a battle for revenge, not goals. When Montreal Coach Michel Therrien started yelling "You're going down" after the McLaren hit, he wasn't talking to the Bruins' bench. He was screaming at the quality of hockey.

The best thing about the playoffs has been the comic relief of Vancouver General Manager Brian Burke -- that's Brian as in lyin', Burke as in jerk -- who might well be the biggest jackass in all of professional sports (excluding talk-show hosts).

Burke spent considerable time earlier this week criticizing the officiating in the Canucks-Red Wings series. Burke lambasted Detroit's clutching and grabbing of Todd Bertuzzi, the mugging of the Sedin twins and the running of goalie Dan Cloutier. Burke neglected to mention that when he was the NHL's dean of discipline, he saw no problem with any of those things. Burke grouped them under the heading of good, hard-nosed hockey and dismissed those who complained with a sneer.

What goes around comes around, you slack-jawed piece of trash.

The only thing worse than watching NHL playoff hockey is watching Ray Bourque analyze it on ESPN. It's been proven many times that being a great player does not necessarily equate to being a great media figure. Bourque is proving that it doesn't even necessarily translate to speaking coherently. Ray, you finally won a Stanley Cup. Congratulations. Now can't you just please go away?

Hockey is such a paradox. I honestly believe it's the greatest game in the world. But it's all too often its own worst enemy.

Lucky for us that the NBA playoffs are in full swing. Detroit's Ben Wallace is one bad mother, and that dope Afro makes him look like Coolidge from "The White Shadow." I love this game!

Good thing, too. Because I'm really beginning to hate hockey.

Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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