I was checking out the competition last night, watching the Caps/Flyers, Sens/Pens and Rags/Brodeurs. I figure the Habs could be playing any of them (okay...maybe not the Sens) before the East is won, so it's best to know thine enemy. I caught a little of the late Colorado/Minnesota game as well. All the teams, with the exception of Ottawa, are playing their best hockey, which is to be expected. There were lots of nice hits, generally excellent speed and timely goaltending. No one seems to have the Habs' pinpoint-accurate passing ability though, including the vaunted Crosby/Hossa combination. And watching other teams' powerplays is simply frustrating when you're used to the Markov-to-Streit-to-Kovalev-to-the-back-of-the-net combination. If this is the best the teams out there have to offer, I think the Habs are able to compete with...and beat...just about anyone.
But I digress. Watching so many games last night inevitably...due to sheer volume of hockey absorbed...showcased several of the things I really hate about the NHL. Don't get me wrong: I love hockey. I love the speed and aggression of the game at its highest level, and seeing the best players in the world work their magic is a joy. Still, these things drive me crazy:
10. Goalies with stupid nicknames who emblazon said stupid nicknames all over their expensive, hand-painted masks. I know the modern goalie mask is supposed to be an expression of self for the only player on the ice who would otherwise go about in complete anonymity...which explains why Garth Brooks adorns the face of Carey Price every night. But when a guy pays a hefty chunk of change for his mask, and goes to the bother and further expense of a custom paint job, he ought to have something a little more imaginative than "Backs" (Backstrom) or "Wardo" (Cam Ward) splashed all over it.
9. The delay-of-game penalty for shooting the puck out of the rink. This is the stupidest penalty in hockey. I understand the logic behind wanting to eliminate the old defence trick of deliberately relieving pressure by dumping the puck into the stands. But an automatic two-minute penalty? That's way too harsh a punishment. And the irony of it is, the game is slowed down much more by stopping play to call a penalty than it would be if, say, there were to be a faceoff in the offending player's end with no change allowed, as it is for an icing.
8. Scrums after the whistle. They're pointless, time-consuming, often end up negating what might have been a powerplay and involve so much facewashing and shoving they make the players look like they're in fights for the bathroom in a delinquent girls' school. Just suck it up and go to the faceoff circle.
7. Players who kiss their gloves after they score. Crosby does it. So does Ovechkin. And it's irritating. Every time I see them do it, I hope they get cold sores from the dirty glove.
6. Cheerleaders. If a city needs scantily-clad women gyrating on the boards to get asses in the seats, it might not be a city entirely suited to the care and feeding of an NHL hockey team. I have no problem with it if the rink is full and the fly girls are part of the spectacle. But when the girls ARE the spectacle, it may be time to relocate some of the McFranchises to towns where there's actual ice outside the arena in winter.
5. The all-star game. It's a farce, made more ridiculous by the silly shootout competition with judges this year. Steven Stamkos, demonstrating some of his moves on Sportsnet, was better than the moves the NHL players pulled in the contest. Even Ovechkin looked goofy.
4. Speaking of which...the shootout. I hate the shooutout. Why does there have to be a winner of every game? What was wrong with a tie? If two teams can play sixty minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime deadlocked, they should be able to call it a night and agree they're evenly matched at the end. There's honour in a tie. There's none in the arbitrary fortune of sending players in on breakaways against a benighted goalie who may or may not luck into stopping them. Sure, it's fun to watch, but it sure leaves a sour taste in the mouths of fans whose team put in a great effort, only to lose it in a carnival sideshow.
3. And, following from that...the points system. I can't stand the "loser point" system. If the league is going to have finite wins and losses in every game, why are there even points at all? If a team loses, it loses. End of story. You don't see baseball or basketball awarding points in the standings to make losing in the late minutes of a game palatable. Or worse...deciding tied games with home run derbys or free-throw competitions, from which both teams emerge with points. It makes the NHL look silly. And for bonus irritation points, I hate that some team is going to beat the Habs' great 132-point season from 1976-77 because they collect enough lose points to put them over the top.
2. The division-winner playoff seeding format. Sure, the Caps would have made the playoffs this year anyway. But they should have been in seventh place. The idea of simply handing a team the third-overall seed in the conference because it wins a crappy division is ridiculous. A team is going to steal a playoff spot when it has less points than the eighth-place team, which is bad enough. But to automatically award it third place AND home-ice advantage in the playoffs is ludicrous. It almost happened this year, and we WILL see it unless the NHL changes that format.
And, the number one thing that drives me crazy about the NHL:
1. Gary Bettman. This smarmy little man who wants to make goalie nets bigger to increase scoring and who messes with the playoff schedule to accomodate indifferent US television broadcasters; who forced a year-long lockout on fans in order to introduce a salary cap on the league that has done little to decrease crazy salaries; who sees nothing wrong with putting a hockey team in Las Vegas, yet bristles at the idea of moving one from Tennessee to Hamilton, is not helping the league or the game. On the contrary, Bettman has changed the face of the NHL with which many of us grew up into something a little cheaper, a little more circus-like and a little less passionate.
Whew...good to get that off my chest. Because despite it all, I love hockey. The game will always be the game and a big hit or fast rush will always get the heart racing. And nothing is more fun than the Habs in good position to do some playoff damage, which, judging by what's happening around the league, they just might be this year.