It was a game only a diehard could love. A red-haired stepchild of a game, an ugly duckling after so much anticipation – like winning the lottery and finding out that your prize is a weekend in Mississauga.
It was exactly what Philadelphia Flyers coach Alain Vigneault wanted, but unless you’re the type who can get excited over stifling defensive hockey (“lookie that, Ma! See how they’re blocking the shooting lanes!”) it would bore you to tears.
Humiliated and shellacked 5-0 in Game 2 of this series, Vigneault fell back on a tried and true formula: send out the fun police. Shackle those high-flying skaters. Make the game as dreary as a Monday morning in February. Win 2-1 or 1-0 – but win.
It works. Especially if you get the first goal.
The Flyers won it, alright, on a lucky bounce not long after Jesperi Kotkaniemi hit a post for the Canadiens and Brett Kulak glanced one off the crossbar eight seconds later. Then came Jakub Voracek’s accidental deflection off a shot from Claude Giroux and the game was effectively over.
For Canadiens fans, the Flyers goal was the signal to go straight to bed, because nothing else was going to happen. As one wag cracked on Twitter, “even the penalties were boring.”
If there’s one thing you can trust the sports world to do, it’s inventing new clichés for old stuff. What used to be a boring game is now “low event hockey.” To me, that’s just boring hockey or unwatchable hockey, take your pick.
The disease has afflicted the game at least since the 1990s, when Jacques Lemaire imported the neutral-zone trap from Switzerland and low-event hockey took over the NHL. In hockey, innovative coaches are as rare as quotable players. Lemaire was innovative (or at least sufficiently innovative to recognize an effective system when he saw it in Europe) and after he won his first Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils, his colleagues duly copied Lemaire’s system.
The result was awful. After the bloated 1980s, a decade that will forever skew the statistics in the NHL and make Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux look even better than they really were, the last big season was put up in 1995-96 when Lemieux had 161 points. By 1999-2000, Lemieux’s teammate Jaromir Jagr was able to win the scoring title with 96 points – a precipitous drop-off that signalled a sea change in the way the game was played.
Since then, the scoring totals of the league leaders has bounced up and down but the highest point total since Lemieux’s 161 was 128 from Nikita Kucherov last season.
Since the trap era, the league has tried all sorts of adjustments to put some sizzle back in the game, with some success. But it’s still a game in which Gretzky in his prime would be lucky to score 130 points, a far cry from his record 212-point season.
And come playoff time, a coach like Vigneault can still deflate the game, especially if he gets a little help from the on-ice officials, as the Flyers did Sunday night. This is Vigneault’s trademark. In 2014, the year the Canadiens playoff hopes were Chris Kreidered, Vigneault’s Rangers churned out 2-1 scores the way Russian factories churn out nesting dolls for the tourists.
Now Vigneault is applying the same formula with the Flyers. In New York he had Henrik Lundqvist, in Philly it’s young Carter Hart, who may finally be the solution to a Philly goaltending dilemma that goes back to Ron Hextall. Add some significant help from the referees which the Flyers got Sunday night and you can win game after game without once making the highlight reels.
The result? Carey Price has allowed three goals in three games and lost two of them. When they take the ice again Tuesday afternoon, the Canadiens are going to have to bring the kind of energy they had Friday and score that first goal or Vigneault is going to ease them out of the playoffs one ugly shift at a time.
Still, the Habs have already accomplished a great deal. They’ve beaten Sid Crosby’s Penguins and they’ve played the top-seeded Flyers to a standstill. They have shown the world that they now have two top-flight young centremen to go with a great goaltender and a number-one stud defenceman.
The emergence of Jesperi Kotkaniemi is one of the more startling transformations I’ve seen in a lifetime watching sports. It is similar in some ways to Guy Lafleur’s explosion in the 1974-75 season when he scored 53 goals to go with 66 assists – but that was following three full seasons in the league in which Lafleur put up good but not great numbers.
Lafleur was 23 that season. The Flower himself credited legendary scribe Red Fisher with the impetus that led to his breakout campaign. “The first year I’m with the Habs,” Lafleur once told me, “Red Fisher don’t talk to me. The second year, he talks to me a little. Third year, same thing.
“The fourth year, first day of training camp, they tell me I’m the first player Red wants to talk to. When I heard that, I told myself, ‘Guy Lafleur, you’re gonna be a superstar in the NHL.’”
And he was.
No one knows whether Kotkaniemi is going to be a superstar, but at worst he’s going to be a very good centreman in the mold of Bobby Smith, the player whom he resembles in so many ways, including the number 15 he wears on his back.
It’s all good, but the Canadiens have shown they’re capable of more than simply showing that they belong here and gaining a little respect and experience. They are still capable of ousting the Flyers from the playoffs just as they bounced the Penguins – and if they can accomplish that task, anything is possible. Anything.
But first they’re going to have to put the fun back in the game. They have to find a way to skate around Vigneault’s stultifying system and they need to play high-event hockey.
That way, some of us will be able to stay awake past the second period. Especially if they start the games at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.