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New York Rangers' Steve Eminger (44) is checked by Boston Bruins' Brad Marchand (63) during the first period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden, in New York, Monday, April 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill) (Paul J. Bereswill/AP)
New York Rangers' Steve Eminger (44) is checked by Boston Bruins' Brad Marchand (63) during the first period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden, in New York, Monday, April 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill) (Paul J. Bereswill/AP)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

An NHL defence never rests Add to ...

There is a montage that Hockey Night in Canada shows every year come playoff time that features a goal scored by Wayne Gretzky against the Calgary Flames' Mike Vernon. You've probably seen it over and over. Gretzky skates down the wing, never challenged; brings his stick all the way up and then unleashes an overpowering slap shot that Vernon cannot handle.

Here's an exercise next time you see the replay: Start counting steamboats, from the time Gretzky gets the puck until he actually shoots it. The time he has to get a shot off is astonishing - and if there is one thing missing from today's NHL, and maybe explains why goal-scoring was down yet again in the 2010-11, it is illustrated by that frozen-in-time play.

Nowadays, there is no time to shoot, and little room to make plays in a league dominated by coaches once again. There was a brief flurry of scoring post-lockout, largely because of the increase in the number of penalties, but officials eventually relaxed those standards, to permit the pendulum to come to rest in a reasonable middle ground.

Philosophically, the days of picking up your man in the zone are over. Defensive hockey is all about tracking the puck carrier. There is pressure on him from every direction - in front, from behind, at the side. And the net effect of that is that goal-scoring is down again, for the third consecutive year. By finishing with a late-season flourish, the Anaheim Ducks' Corey Perry became the NHL's one-and-only 50-goal scorer. Even more perplexing: There were only four other scorers who managed as many as 40 goals: Steve Stamkos, Jarome Iginla, Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler.

Even those bastions of free-wheeling hockey, the Washington Capitals, who obliterated the NHL for 318 goals a year ago, saw the light this year; changed their style; and now waltz in the playoffs, having seen their scoring numbers drop by almost 100 goals (to 224) and yet believe they are far better positioned to actually challenge for the Stanley Cup.

The Capitals single-handedly account for the year-over-year decline in scoring. They open against the Rangers Wednesday, a rematch of their series from two years ago, in which Washington squeaked out a seven-game victory, after being down 3-1 and frustrated constantly by Henrik Lundqvist's goaltending. Everybody remembers last year's debacle - Caps out in the first round, booted by another exceptional goaltending performance from Montreal's Jaroslav Halak. In effect, the Capitals said: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And so, for anyone imagining the Rangers-Caps series to be about offensive fireworks, think again. The Caps will start goaltender Michal Neuwirth and like everybody else in this day and age, will try to win a lot of 2-1 games. Washington, according to coach Bruce Boudreau, learned their lessons in the past two years and will go in, a more mature and sound team.

"I'll tell you what, experience is the greatest teacher," Boudreau told the Washington Post. "You know what to expect, you're not going in awestruck. We'll be going in just like them, just hungry, and the guys that have played it before know how much it gets ramped up in the playoffs."

Edmonton Oilers' assistant coach Steve Smith played alongside Gretzky in the highest scoring era in the NHL - the mid 1980s - and was on the team when he scored that highlight-reel goal against Vernon.

The conundrum, according to Smith, is "this is as creative an NHL as there's ever been. The talent level is higher now than it was during that era. There were some special teams - the Oilers of the early 1980s, the Flames in the later 1980s, Pittsburgh as Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and that whole group came together.

"But everybody is told and taught they have to check - and they have to be in position. Look at Washington this year. They've given up the third or fourth fewest goals in the league. The only chance they have - for them to go into the playoffs last year and get bumped off by Montreal - Bruce Boudreau had an awakening. He said, 'these guys have to check and play hard or we have no chance in the playoffs - and we can't just turn it on in the playoffs either.' "The philosophy has become: 'Don't give up many chances, don't make too many mistakes over the course of the night, and you'll give yourself a chance to win."

It is a point reiterated by defenceman Cory Sarich, a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup winners, which won the last title before the lockout came along.

"We had a pretty clutch-and-grab game and then we changed the rules and the first few years were spent in limbo, with teams trying to figure out what works and what doesn't," Sarich said.

"Now? I find a lot of nights, we go out and teams' defensive systems are so similar and it has become so refined. Defensive systems, it doesn't matter which team it is, if you play good defensive hockey, you have a chance to win in this league."

 

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