Flyers rout of Leafs illustrates a point
Kelley: No comebacks? Change the rules
TORONTO -- Officially, the annual National Hockey League Hall of Fame game ended when the final horn sounded and the Philadelphia Flyers skated off the Air Canada Centre ice with a 7-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Unofficially, it was over at the end of the second period when the Flyers left the ice ahead 4-1.
For all intents and purposes, it was over at the end of the first period, maybe even the moment the Flyers went ahead 2-0 just six minutes into the game.
This is the state of hockey as the NHL welcomes its class of 2003 to the Hall with a weekend of festivities that culminate with the official induction of players Pat LaFontaine and Grant Fuhr and builders Brian Kilrea (junior hockey coach) and Mike Ilitch (Detroit Red Wings owner): Get a lead and hold it, often by figuratively choking the other team to death. Seemingly not until the death of the game will coaches and this philosophy part.
It's been going on for half a decade now, but it was certainly on display for all of the hockey world to see Saturday night. Though it's still early in the season, the Leafs haven't won a game in which they trailed after two periods (0-4-0-0), and they have but one win (1-2-1-0) when trailing after one.
Conversely, the Flyers have never lost a game when leading after two (4-0-1-0) and are 4-1-1-0 when leading after one.
In case you think that's something of an aberration, consider that the Flyers are winless in games in which they trailed after two periods (0-1-1-1) and they are 0-0-1-0 when trailing after one.
And they are not alone.
In games leading up to this weekend, according to NHL stats, teams were 92-24-26 (tossing aside overtime results for the moment) when they scored the first goal. Any time a team has a 2-0 lead, they almost always win (56-6-0 through Thursday's games).
The result of all this is that no matter how good a team is, no matter how talented its individual players might be, to give up the first goal is dangerous. To fall behind by two goals is almost certain defeat. Make no mistake, in this game the Flyers were dominant, but they were dominant the same way teams win a blowout in the Super Bowl. Once the other team gets behind, it tends to lose all hope.
It didn't used to be this way. There was a time when a comeback, even a spectacular comeback, was not as foreign to the NHL as a $10 ticket.
"I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that when I played it was different," said LaFontaine, a standout offensive center for the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers. "Sometimes I think four-on-four is the answer, sometimes I think back to the games I saw in the '70s and the time I played ('80s through to the mid-'90s) and I think that maybe when they were building all these new buildings, had they expanded the ice to somewhere between NHL rinks (200 feet by 85) and the international rinks (about 200 by 100 feet) and maybe had something in the range of 200 by 92 ... you might be able to create something with that additional lane."
People are careful in their remarks here. This is, after all, the Hall's premier event and the NHL has a major presence in it, but the numbers are, well, numbing -- and not just in regards to this game. So far this season any team with a lead of any margin heading into the third period wins. Through Thursday the record was 87-7-19. If you are on the downside of the score heading into the final period of a game, your chance of winning is barely over six percent.
In other words, the game is over long before it's officially over.
"Nowadays it's not only hard to come back without taking a lot of risks, but if the other team commits to playing defense for 60 minutes you're screwed," said Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock.
"I'm not saying our team was demoralized," added Toronto coach Pat Quinn, "but I can see where you might think it looked that way tonight. If we had made it 3-1 I thought we had a chance, but they got the fourth goal there and it was over."
For the record, that was at the 6:09 mark of the second period.
There is a stunning array of reasons for teams to give up at a point still early on the clock. Goaltenders are bigger, faster, quicker, more heavily padded and more technically sound than even in the era when Fuhr played. Fuhr, barely over 5-foot-10, was of average size for the position when he played with the Edmonton Oilers in an era when the Oilers often averaged five or more goals a game. He was successful largely because he was a superior athlete with outstanding mobility and a stunningly quick glove hand.
Now, however, 6-foot to 6-foot-4 goalies are the norm and those not as quick as Fuhr are still pretty quick, superbly coached and have the benefit of the workings of a small army of coaches who develop schemes, pour over opponents' videos and pretty much teach nothing but schemes and defenses designed to keep opposing teams not only from scoring a goal, but even from penetrating their defensive zone.
"In all my years in Edmonton, the idea was to outscore the other team," Fuhr said. "My job was to stop the puck and the defensemen or one of the forwards would take it and go the other way. The idea was to just get it and go. No team plays that way any more."
Not even close.
It's not that the game itself is slowed; it's just directed by coaches intent on slowing it down. It's not that the players are poorer or that the talent pool is "watered down"; it's that a force of five is committed to stopping anyone who has the puck as well as shutting down the lanes so that he can't find anyone to pass it to.
"I know my best year in Buffalo I had 148 points," LaFontaine said. "Alex (Mogilny, LaFontaine's linemate and now a winger with the Leafs) was on my right and Dave Andreychuk (currently with the Tampa Bay Lightning) was on my left. We had Dale Hawerchuk and Doug Bodger on the points (on the power play) and we scored a lot of goals and we had a lot of fun."
They also played in Memorial Auditorium, a building that housed one of the shortest sheets of ice ever seen in the NHL. Sure they were all good players (Hawerchuk is already in the Hall and Mogilny and Andreychuk are likely to follow), but the difference was that creative, talented players were not hooked, checked, held and neutralized by schemes like they are today.
Odd, but when baseball had defenses overwhelming offenses, the powers that be lowered the pitching mound, changed the strike zone, moved the fences around and generally did what was necessary to bring balance back into the game.
When kickers in football starting connecting from long range, management moved the uprights back and the posts closer together. When defenders overwhelmed wide receivers, hit and no-hit zones were established.
When the zone defense and big men dominated basketball, the sport changed its rules, even going so far as to introduce the three-point play.
When hockey started to see scoring contract, however, the NHL did little more than help it shrink.
The NHL had a showcase game Saturday night and, unfortunately for all, the outcome was determined before most of the fans had settled into their seats.
In today's NHL, it happens almost every night. Little wonder so many fans stay home.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.