Scotty Bowman knows where the defensive style that is killing the entertainment value of the NHL playoffs comes from but he doesn't know if it can be stamped out.
The senior adviser to the Chicago Blackhawks can trace it back to the 1979 playoffs when he was coaching the powerful Montreal Canadiens. Roger Neilson, the innovative head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, saw his team swept by the Habs in the previous year and wanted to avoid a repeat.
The Canadiens relied on their Big Three defencemen, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, to control the puck along the offensive blue line and get it to highly skilled forwards like Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Jacques Lemaire.
The key to success, Neilson figured, was to forget the traditional defensive game of having your wingers cover the defenceman on each point. He wanted them closer to the net, or down low, as the coaches say, checking the Canadiens forwards hard so the puck never made it back to the point.
"That's kind of the theory they try to do now," Bowman said Tuesday morning. "There's two guys out at the point and if you think about it, the defensive team has five guys nearer the puck and the other team has only three. They've got three forwards and the two defencemen are out on the blue line."
Bowman said the strategy worked on his 1979 Canadiens "because we'd never seen it before." The Leafs were swept for the second consecutive season - after all, they were playing one of the NHL's great dynasties - but they managed to take the Habs to overtime in both of the last two games.
"The winger would come right down to the corner and [the Leafs]would have us out-numbered," Bowman said. "Normally, we'd be able to whip that puck up to the point but we couldn't. It was a good strategy."
It is a strategy the successful teams in this year's playoffs are using, with some enhancements like a lot more shot-blocking, at the cost of entertaining, offensive hockey. The New York Rangers became the first team in 75 years to go 14 consecutive games in which they did not score more than three goals when they beat the New Jersey Devils 3-0 in the opening game of the Eastern Conference final Monday night.
"It's a really good defensive manoeuvre," Bowman said. "But it hurts your offence."
The price of this tactic is a quick counter-attack, those entertaining two-on-one or three-on-two rushes, because the wingers are no longer hanging out near the blue line for breakout passes.
But the coaches dug up Neilson's old game plan and modified it, Bowman said, in response to the introduction of more offence by the NHL made to make the game more entertaining after the 2004-05 lockout.
There were three important developments that brought in this style, which sees teams put up a defensive wall around their goaltender with players blocking as many shots as they can:
- The size of the defensive zone was increased to 64 feet from 60 by moving the goal lines 11 feet from the end boards. This also shrunk the neutral zone to 50 feet from 54.
- Zero tolerance was introduced for interference, hooking and holding in order to create more flow.
- Improvement to players' equipment continued, making it less painful to block shots.
With more room at the ends of the rink, skilled forwards were able to bolt for the net from the corners. And with the defenders no longer allowed to impede anyone without the puck, players like the Sedin brothers in Vancouver could make quick strikes from the corners.
Bowman said before the new rules were introduced in 2005, a player was allowed to tie up another player who had moved the puck to a teammate. "If a guy comes out of a corner now, throws the puck to a teammate and you tie him up, it's a penalty," he said.
Coaches soon realized they needed to defend against forwards going to the net but to do so they had to give up another area of the defensive zone.
"So they gave up the points," Bowman said. "They don't cover the points like they used to. The end zones are so big the coaches say we can't cover everybody so we're going to funnel down low.
"The term they use is 'cover the house,' the house being the net. We'll have guys cover the slot area and help the defencemen in the corners and around the net."
Players are also expected to block every shot they can since the defencemen have more time to shoot. With the protection of better equipment more players are willing to do so and during the playoffs even the less defensively-inclined forwards will block shots, which is why it seems like an epidemic this spring.
The better defencemen figured out that getting a shot through the forest of bodies in front of them was more important in producing a scoring chance than hitting the net. A puck that bounces off the end boards or a leg can become a rebound or deflected goal.
"[Nicklas]Lidstrom is really good at that, and so is [Erik]Karlsson in Ottawa," Bowman said. "The real good point men don't get all their shots through to the net but they get enough through so they're not all blocked."
The trouble is, Bowman does not see a ready solution that will restore up-and-down hockey. He doesn't think simply shrinking the defensive zone back to 60 feet will do it.
"I don't know if that would make the forwards cover the points or what," he said. "It may be worse if [the defensive zone]was smaller because the defencemen wouldn't be as far out.
"There's nothing anybody can do about it."