I think all hockey fans are excited about the quality of play during this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The games have been exciting with equal measures of breathtaking skill, intensity and physical play.
I am a big fan of the league allowing players to engage in one-on-one battles, whether it be in the corners for the puck or in front of the net for position. But I do think the on-ice officials and their off-ice supervisors have dropped the ball a little when it comes to obstruction and interference, particularly in the neutral zone.
Things that were automatic penalties during the regular season are being ignored during the finals as the referees try hard not to influence the outcome of the games.
Unfortunately, that, by definition, is their very role.
The job of the referee is to ensure that both teams have an equal and fair chance of being successful and that skill and hard work wins out over illegal tactics. If a breach of the rules is committed and detected, it's the responsibility of the on-ice officials to penalize the infraction.
It shouldn't be any different in the first game of the regular season than it is in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals.
The game and how it's played should not change because the situation is more intense or because there is more on the line. Being a couple of wins away from a Stanley Cup shouldn't be a license to revert to the clutch and grab tactics that almost killed the game in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But as hockey's holy grail gets closer, the refs seem to be less and less inclined to interpret the rules the way they've being doing it all season long. So now it's permissible for Henrik Zetterberg to clutch and grab Sidney Crosby from one end of the rink to the other, or for Hal Gill to blatantly interfere with Daniel Cleary after a shoot-in.
Don't get me wrong.
I think Zetterberg is doing a fantastic job of checking Crosby and I'm a big fan, but do you really think all of his "shadowing" tactics would be legal in a late November regular season game.
I don't think so.
What the NHL finally figured out since the lockout, is something the NBA and NFL figured out long ago. To attract new fans and provide the best calibre entertainment for your current followers, you have to let your stars shine. The NBA did this by making it a foul to even look at Michael Jordan (insert Kobe Bryant, Lebron James or any of the other current NBA stars) with a less than friendly gaze. In the NFL, rules have been made to allow quarterbacks and receivers more room, thus increasing offense.
That's the path the NHL's been on, too, for the past three or four years, but something seems to have changed as we get deeper into the playoffs. Now the offensive stars have to battle through the same tactics that, ultimately, caused Penguins owner Mario Lemieux to quit.
As a 40-year fan of the greatest game in the world (in my opinion), I would much rather see a beautiful pass from Crosby or Zetterberg converted by Malkin or Hossa, then watch these stars forced to play the game with some one on their backs for the entire 60 minutes.
To ensure this, all the league has to do is to have the games called exactly the same way as they were during the regular season. That will give the superstars the room they need to be great and the fans the best entertainment value for their hard-earned dollar.
Failure to do this puts hockey back on a slippery slope to obscurity.
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