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(Frank Franklin II)
(Frank Franklin II)

Usual Suspects

Welcome to the era of Robo Hockey Add to ...

The Hockey Night In Canada iso camera succinctly captured the 2012 NHL playoffs on Monday. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, perhaps the purest scorer of his generation, flopping to the ice like a beached whale in an effort to block a blistering slap shot from the point by a New York Rangers defenceman. It was a great call by CBC’s producer.

Being unfamiliar with this suddenly en vogue stratagem, Ovechkin offered his back to the shooter, not his padded front. For his pluck, Ovechkin was rewarded with a laser to an unpadded region of his spine. Back at the bench, looking like he was about to perish, cameras captured the former sniper being congratulated by his grunt teammate Jason Chimera who, lacking Ovie’s scoring prowess, must sacrifice parts of his body to the puck on a regular basis.

The tone of announcers and journalists over Ovechkin going from pitcher to catcher was wildly approving. Yes, The Great Eight might have lacked a little style in offering himself as a puck piñata, but he now understood what it takes to win in playoff hockey. Like a wild stallion he’s been broken, a team guy, a shock absorber of pain. Forget all that scoring stuff. He’s ONE OF US!

What would happen if both football teams ran the same plays or if every jockey in the race tried to come from off the pace? Now imagine the reception were Kobe Bryant to instead mix it up elbow-wise in the paint like Metta World Peace or Peyton Manning were to get in there with a devastating block on a nose tackle. People from the commissioners on down would think the model of the sport broken.

Not in hockey. Not in 2012. Alex Ovechkin blocks pucks while Jay Beagle soars like an eagle. Stasis is upon us. Call it Robo Hockey.

No Identities: Watching the coverage on HNIC, TSN and Sportsnet, Robo Hockey would seem to be only approved way to win a Stanley Cup now. There are no team identities, no clashes of style between Vancouver and Boston. There are no skill players dominating (Washington’s Brooks Laich mocked them with a bilious “Is Alex Kovalev skilled? Where did that get him? You know?”). It’s all inside baseball as TSN’s Aaron Ward deftly explained how the Devils had exploited Philly’s lack of right-handed defencemen in their series.

There are very few power plays making penalty-prone teams pay. (Multiple perp Zack Rinaldo’s deliberate knee shot on Dainus Zubrus Tuesday earned a paltry two minutes and conditional praise from HNIC’s Gary Galley for “doing a good job of igniting his bench.”)

There is an impenetrable goalie. There are five well-padded bodies in front of him blocking shots. Three opposing forwards storm the net and two defenceman blaze from the point. Sometimes a shot sneaks through. Most times, there are more blocks from defenders than from the goalie. Low-scoring games typically go to overtime, connoting the notion of excitement and parity when it is instead gridlock and stalemate.

Change the names and jerseys and very few would notice. The league’s Hockey Operations department wants it thus. Coach’s Corner likes it thus. The networks grudgingly go along, mouthing chalk-talk platitudes about “one on one battles” and patting Ovechkin on his bruised back for being such a gamer. What choice do they have?

More to the point, what would have happened to Wayne Gretzky if he’d had to face this gauntlet? Good question. He’d probably have flopped on the ice, blocking shots.

Playoff Ratings: Robo Hockey has racked up good ratings in local U.S. markets with a team in the hunt and with those fans in hockey pools. But since Vancouver and Ottawa lost in Round 1, Canadian hockey fans have found other things to do. With the Western Conference games, TSN saw respectable audiences over a million for most games when not up against overtime in the Eastern games, which are CBC’s purview this Round. Those runover Eastern games, however, drove TSN’s average audience for Round 2 to 774,000 viewers over nine games.

CBC is declining to release ratings numbers till the end of Round 2. Which might take till the weekend. That’s probably three more Ovechkin shot blocks away.

How’s That?: Now, if we’ve got this straight from Ron MacLean’s intro to Sunday’s Devils/ Flyers game. Near Wells Fargo Arena in Newark, N.J., Jack Dempsey KO’d Georges Carpentier in 1923, which caused Foster Hewitt to choose radio as a career in Toronto. And Foster had a gondola, so did the Hindenburg, the dirigible that blew up also near the site of the Wells Fargo Arena when Denis Brodeur was nine. And Denis Brodeur’s son Martin was having his birthday Sunday as he played for the Devils. Over to you, Scott Oake. Have we got that right?

Barkley’s Bite: Well, we can officially call off the U.S. presidential election. TNT’s Charles Barkley caught a shot of presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the crowd at a Boston Celtics playoff game. Spake Sir Charles, “Mitt Romney. Listen main man, we're going to beat you like a drum in November. Don't take it personally. You seem like a nice guy. But you're going down, bro.”

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