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Mark Leiren-Young Headshot

If Ovechkin Can't Play, it's Soccer on Ice

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The playoffs are only starting round two and hockey season is already over. 

There are officially eight teams playing for the Stanley Cup in round two -- but with the exception of the Philadelphia Flyers I'm not sure what game they're playing. I just know that if Alexander Ovechkin isn't allowed on the ice, it can't possibly be hockey.

In Game Seven of the first round series against the Boston Bruins, the highest paid player in the league, pretty much the only superstar who doesn't have a history of concussions, played 16 minutes in the series, ending overtime game ranking 11th in team ice time for the Washington Capitals. The team captain played less than 10 other skaters including future trivial pursuits answer Jay Beagle, the Caps stellar -- um, does anyone know what position Beagle plays?

Right wing? Defense? Left tackle? Shortstop?

In Game Four against Boston, Ovy played less than two minutes in the third period of what used to be billed as "the fastest game on ice." This is not a typo. This is from NBC Sports. The next line in their story, "In Game Five at Boston, he spent a career playoff low 15:34 on the ice."

But as the Boston Bruins proved last season, skill doesn't win Stanley Cups. Nevermind the finals when the refs declared that you're allowed a dozen penalty-free punches per Sedin per game. Look at Game Seven of the eastern finals when the Bruins beat the faster, flashier, more talented Tampa Bay Lightning in what was apparently the cleanest game in the history of the NHL playoffs, since it was the only post-season game ever played without a single penalty call.

Based on the Lightning's electric power play, they were one Bruins' foul away from facing the Canucks in the finals. But the refs couldn't find a single fault with the team's gritty style.

As far as I'm concerned Tampa Bay fans were the ones with a legitimate reason to have a hockey riot.

After seeing the Canucks lose the chance to kiss the cup last season, after watching Mason Raymond carried off the ice on a stretcher with a broken back after an, um, really super clean hit requiring no penalty, or supplementary discipline at all, GM Mike Gillis saw which way the whistles were blowing (or not, as the case may be), read the writing on the Jumbotron, and replaced several fast forwards with players whose biggest qualifications was how big they were. And based on how the Canucks played their opening round series last week against the Kings there's a case to be made that the player the team missed the most wasn't top scorer Daniel Sedin, but top defenseman Alex Edler who inexplicably played more like a promising rookie than a future Norris contender.

Clearly the key to winning playoff games in today's NHL is keeping it dull. These games aren't about taking shots, they're about blocking them.

I've always mocked "fans" who leave the arena early -- especially when the outcome is still in doubt, but there's one game I left after the second period. It was about a decade ago and I'd paid over $100 I couldn't really afford for a lower bowl seat to watch the Canucks challenge the New Jersey Devils. Or perhaps I'm confused and it was some other team coached by a defensive guru like Jacques Lemaire. After two periods, the score was tied at one, and I wasn't sure I could stay awake for another twenty minutes of alleged hockey.

To be clear I love goaltending duels. My favourite players are often goalies, sometimes backup goalies. I'm one of those freaks who finds zero-zero games exciting and I've always been willing to watch any two teams in overtime. But this was not a goaltending duel. This was a game where the players spent so much time in the neutral zone, the only excitement would have been if the Klingons arrived. Neither team was playing to score, they were playing to avoid being scored against. This was... soccer on skates.

And I thought if this is what it takes to win the cup, I'm okay watching a team that isn't a contender. I'd rather see this season's edition of the Edmonton Oilers play pretty much anyone other than the Devils or Rangers versus any of the four teams still standing in the West. Other than the Flyers name, there isn't a single team left in the race that's generally fun to watch for anyone who isn't already a fan of the team.

Before the start of the second round, only two of the top nine scorers in the playoffs -- and only six of the top 19 -- didn't belong to the Penguins or Flyers. And that can't all be racked up to abysmal goaltending -- even if the Penguins did take the unorthodox step of replacing Marc-Andre Fleury with Theoren Fleury. The Amazing Ovechkin was in an 11-way tie for 20th spot with five whole points.

The New Jersey Devils may not win the cup this year, but if they don't, they should certainly receive an honourable mention. Because unless the Flyers hold down the fort for fans of that fast game on skates I grew up loving -- or Caps coach Dale Hunter is willing to risk letting one of the most skilled forwards in the world play hockey -- then whoever hoists the NHL's Holy Grail will be playing the classic Devils game, and that means the fans lose. Whatever this sport is called, if Alexander Ovechkin can't play it, why would anyone want to watch?