The NHL always has been divisible into groups--North Americans
and Europeans, trapping teams and puck-pursuit teams, those who
vandalize their Olympic dorms and those who don't--but the
distinctions rarely have been as neat, as significant, as in
this year's playoffs, during which the division has been between
the quick and the dead.
Speed is in. Power plays and penalty killing are really in. Size
isn't exactly out, but it has been cut down to size. The NHL has
undergone a sea change in the past three months with its
decision to strictly enforce rules against obstruction and--to
the shock of many players--maintain those standards in the
playoffs. This has turned a grim regular season into a spring
jamboree. "The league wanted a one-eighty," says Dallas Stars
center Mike Modano, "and that's what it got." Commissioner Gary
Bettman effected the change by fiat, although considering how
swiftly the game has eliminated its speed bumps and found fifth
gear, maybe it wasn't as much fiat as Lamborghini.
As soon as the playoffs began, Edmonton Oilers president Glen
Sather saw speed as the decisive factor. While sitting with
Montreal Canadiens president Ronald Corey during Game 3 of the
Canadiens' opening-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins,
Sather says, "I told him that his team was faster than
Pittsburgh's, that it should win. He said 'Yeah, but the
Penguins have Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis,' and I told him,
'Yeah, but your team has the speed.' What's happening now should
carry through the playoffs. Teams that are smart and fast are
going to win. The two fastest teams should meet in the finals."
"Speed does kill," Modano says. "Ask Jersey. Ask Philly."
R.I.P., New Jersey Devils, who were put six feet under in the
first round by the swift Ottawa Senators; in lieu of flowers,
donations can be made to the power-skating school of your
choice. The vaunted Philadelphia Flyers looked like museum
pieces in their five-game elimination by the Buffalo Sabres. In
the six first-round series in which one team had a distinct
advantage in speed, the faster team won. Among these were
underdogs Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa and Edmonton, which--after
knocking off the Colorado Avalanche--split its first two games
of the second round on the road against the Stars, outshooting
the slower Presidents' Trophy winners by a staggering 53 to 29.
"Edmonton's speed and tenacity gave us trouble," Dallas coach
Ken Hitchcock said after a 2-0 defeat in Game 2 last Saturday.
The Oilers are a paradigm of the new hockey. They have readily
adjusted to the faster tempo and the stricter calls, which have
not only dramatically increased the number of power plays but
have also opened up the game for nifty forwards and defensemen
who can move the puck. Compared with the opening series in 1997,
this year's first round saw 3.3 more obstruction
penalties--hooking, holding and interference intended to impede
an opponent--per game, 47 more power plays and eight more
power-play goals, even though there were two fewer games.
Lest referees be inclined to let postseason play degenerate into
the playoff rodeos of recent past, NHL senior vice president
Brian Burke reminded them during a conference call last Thursday
to keep tooting their whistles. "Absolutely," Burke said when
asked if this was the NHL's new face. "There's more speed in the
game, more forechecking--because players can get through--more
hitting, more puck battles. For the teams this is all about
adaptation. If they adapt well, they don't take dumb penalties.
If they don't adapt, they're looking at somebody's power-play
In the case of the St. Louis Blues, that unit is as scary as the
Jerry Springer Show (box, below). The most intimidating sight in
hockey is defenseman Al MacInnis on the point with his stick
drawn to shoulder height for a slap shot. "Once one of his shots
knocked the blade off my skate," Dallas penalty killer Mike
Keane says. Although MacInnis missed the first two games of
round 2 against the Detroit Red Wings with a groin injury, St.
Louis still went home with a split, thanks to the two goals it
got from its special teams in a breezy 4-2 win last Friday.
Buffalo's power play didn't frighten anyone but itself during
the regular season--the Sabres' unit ranked 19th in the league,
finished the year 0 for 31 and often had coach Lindy Ruff
wishing he could decline the penalty--but it sparkled against
the Flyers, with eight goals in the final three games, including
all three in Buffalo's Game 5 overtime win. The Sabres got three
more power-play scores in winning Games 1 and 2 of the second
round against Montreal.
The new importance of the power play has resulted in an increase
in both the attention paid to penalty killing and the number of
forwards being saddled with the job. "The penalty kill has
become the biggest artistic event in the NHL," says Hitchcock,
who, like most coaches, now uses three sets of penalty-killing
forwards instead of the traditional two. "You have penalty
killers go out there for 18-second shifts [rather than the usual
stints of up to a minute]."
Penalty killing has grown so aggressive that teams are altering
their power plays. Instead of a puckhandling second unit, Dallas
sends out a smash-and-crash group featuring a solar eclipse of a
defenseman, 6'5", 225-pound Derian Hatcher, who stands in front
of the net and tries to deflect in wrist shots from the point.
Bettman had pretty much been 0 for '98--the NHL having suffered
from a dearth of scoring, a handful of foundering franchises,
microscopic TV ratings and the wrong buzz from its Nagano
participation--until he personally championed the obstruction
crackdown. The new policy was approved during the general
managers' meetings in February, and the new guidelines were
instituted after the Olympics. Some general managers, like
Philadelphia's Bob Clarke, failed to grasp the significance of
the changes: Clarke sent Edmonton swift-skating defenseman Janne
Niinimaa for slow, banging backliner Dan McGillis at the trading
deadline in March. Others, like Sather, brought in players more
suited for the new game. Even before acquiring Niinimaa, a point
man on the Oilers' second power-play unit, Sather had plucked
the fast and physical Bill Guerin from New Jersey for Jason
Arnott and picked up power-play quarterback Roman Hamrlik from
the Tampa Bay Lightning for physical defenseman Bryan Marchment
and two minor leaguers.
The only question was whether the get-tough policy of the final
two months would carry into the playoffs. There was plenty of
skepticism; the NHL had cried wolf about obstruction in recent
years, on several occasions implementing strict enforcement for
a while during the regular season only to wimp out during the
playoffs. "I really didn't believe it was going to happen,"
Modano says. "I thought it would tail off as it did every time
With 2 1/2 playoff rounds remaining, the league shows no signs of
backing off. At the start of that conference call with the
referees, director of officiating Bryan Lewis noted that in the
first round in 1997 there were 12 penalties in 16 overtime
periods and that this year there were 16 penalties (and one
penalty shot) in 12 overtime periods, a reversal that moved him
to say, "Keep it up, boys." Lewis also read a list of quotes
from players, coaches and management praising the crackdown. The
dubious situational ethics of refereeing, under which calls
often were based on the time and the score of the game, have
been replaced with something nontraditional but more honest.
Not everyone is delighted. A checker can no longer "water-ski"
(i.e., hook an opponent and hang on for a 20-foot ride), and a
defenseman can't hold up a forechecker with his stick, although
most referees will allow the weakside defenseman some latitude
to interfere as long as he's skating with the forechecker. "Now
they can dump the puck into [Dallas defenseman] Sergei Zubov's
corner, and the forechecker can go hammer him," says Zubov's
partner, Craig Ludwig, a tough but slow defenseman who contends
that most blueliners dislike the strict rules. "I've got to step
aside and say, 'O.K., go run our best defenseman.' I should
almost turn around, give the guy a shove and say, 'Go ahead. See
if you can hit him harder.'"
While Ludwig glumly ponders the prospect of Zubov munching
shards of plexiglass--it hasn't happened yet--he had better get
with the program or get out of the way. This is the playoff
present, the game's future. In the NHL's fast lane, the days of
punish or perish are in the rearview mirror. As Ottawa right
wing Daniel Alfredsson puts it, "If you're a fan, what would you
like better: skating or holding?"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO OVER THE TOP There were 47 more power plays and eight more man-advantage goals in the first round in '98 than in '97. [Overhead view of power play teams in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO [Brett Hull in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER WHOOSH! Freed from obstruction, finesse players like the Canadiens' Saku Koivu can exploit their speed. [Saku Koivu and opponent in game]
ADVANTAGE, ST. LOUIS
SI rates the power plays of the eight teams remaining in the
1. ST. LOUIS BLUES Point men Al MacInnis and Steve Duchesne and
forward Brett Hull (above) are the core of the most frightening
unit in hockey, which scored four times during a five-minute
major against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. When
MacInnis winds up for a slapper, duck!
2. DETROIT RED WINGS Excellent personnel. The Wings have a
fabulous quarterback in Nicklas Lidstrom and forwards who can
beat an opponent with slickness (Sergei Fedorov) or with
crease-crashing strength (Brendan Shanahan).
3. DALLAS STARS Statistically, the NHL's No. 1 power play during
the regular season has been hurt since Game 1 of the opening
round by the absence of injured center Joe Nieuwendyk. Still,
defenseman Sergei Zubov moves the puck better than anyone else
left in the playoffs, and center Mike Modano is brilliant up
4. WASHINGTON CAPITALS Sweet-passing center Adam Oates and
sniper Peter Bondra are dangerous, but often-overlooked
defenseman Calle Johansson makes it all go for the Caps.
5. EDMONTON OILERS Good--but should be better, considering the
Oilers' talent, which includes skilled defensemen Boris Mironov
and Roman Hamrlik and big-time forwards Doug Weight and Bill
6. MONTREAL CANADIENS Their power play cooled after a fast start
in the regular season and is dependent on gifted but
inconsistent defenseman Vladimir Malakhov. Flashy center Saku
Koivu, who has recovered from a broken finger late in the
regular season, is a big help up front.
7. BUFFALO SABRES A paucity of goal scorers can't be offset by
defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, who distributes the puck as well as
anyone except Zubov.
8. OTTAWA SENATORS Center Alexei Yashin is almost impossible to
stop if he's allowed to walk in from the sideboards, and forward
Daniel Alfredsson is almost his equal as a scorer, but the
Senators don't have a quality quarterback on the blue line.
"Teams that are smart and fast are going to win. The two fastest
teams should meet in the finals."