- Jim Kelley
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It would be nice if the National Hockey League could wave a magic wand and compel the league's most vociferous yet uninterested critics to follow just the first round of this edition of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It's possible they would come away with a good idea of what the game can be when played at a very high level.
The physicality of the first round to date has been monstrous in terms of the hits -- a great many of them punishing we might add -- and they have been so far removed from the ugly Todd Bertuzzi assault on Steve Moore that the difference is worth noting.
One need only have seen Michael Nylander of the Boston Bruins absorb that crushing body check from Steve Begin in Game 2 against the Montreal Canadiens to understand. The almost breathless anticipation that surrounds Nylander's availability for tonight's game illustrates just how much hockey players care about the Stanley Cup and why hockey fans, ridiculed as they so often are, care so passionately about the game.
Did you see the body-on-body hits of the first three games of the Ottawa-Toronto series? Just 180 minutes of all out hockey, every inch of ice contested for, every player doing his part. Players who never fight and often don't even bother to check ("Hey, I'm a skill player" is the common regular-season refrain) are playing with accountability in this series. One needed only to have watched Game 3 Monday night, when Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin battled all the way down the ice to pull away from Senators forward Bryan Smolinski and score the goal that put the game away for the Leafs. Neither player quit, and it was only a battle of wills and ability that separated them. It's a play one doesn't always see in the regular season.
While the series features extraordinary talent on both sides, it has a level of physicality that nearly defies description and has been remarkably clean. No gooning, no ugly cheap shots like we saw when the Leafs played the Islanders two springs ago, not even a flying elbow to the head or the butt-end of a stick to a face. Certainly players are looking to land that momentum-changing hit, the one that lifts the spirits of the teammates and crushes the spirit of the team that receives it, but that is the essence of hockey.
This is often the case in the Stanley Cup playoffs, a period of time when the sport is more neglected than disdained by the vast multitudes of Americans and American media, especially in cities with teams that are not participating. Too bad really, because this is when the game is often at its best.
It is also a time when there is much to be learned, even by people in the game and those regularly exposed to it.
This is a time when critics of violence in the game -- especially the mind-numbingly stupid, side-show violence that so often manifests itself in the regular season -- can argue that hockey can flourish under rules and isn't dependent on a mystical code of retribution.
The intensity of these playoffs has been phenomenal, and devoid of ugly, stupid cheap shots. Players have shown due respect, not only to the authorities on the ice (who coincidentally have been instructed to take back control of the game) but to the spirit of the game, the greater authority that expects players to play hard without crossing the line or turning over the administration of justice to a thug.
That holds true to a degree every playoff year, but it's especially notable this year because it seems the atmosphere is even more intense than usual. Maybe it's because so many teams believe they have an honest shot at winning the Stanley Cup, or maybe it's because so many players believe it might be their last chance forever or at least a very long time, considering the status of their career and the labor issues that likely will lead to a lockout next season.
What we aren't seeing -- so far, at least -- is score settling, that ugly part of the game that sickens the casual fan and the couldn't-care-less segments of media. We're also not seeing the thuggery we witnessed when the Flyers and the Senators combined for 419 minutes in penalties just days before the Bertuzzi affair. We're not seeing coaches bait their players and the officials in some misguided call for retribution disguised as justice. We're not seeing a Wade Belak swing carelessly at an opponent's head or a Chris Pronger kick viciously at an opponent's leg.
Darryl Sutter's Calgary Flames are involved in an extremely physical series with the Bertuzzi-less Canucks. It's a battle that could well end not with the best team standing, but with the team best surviving. Yet, so far the hits have been clean, the intensity has been within the rules and we haven't seen Sutter turn his back on the officials or send out a line of goons and thugs to "send a message" to the Canucks.
In fact, the same can be said about every series.
So far at least it's been good, clean hockey. Hard hitting hockey to be sure, but hockey played within the rules. It's been hockey devoid of stupidity, thuggery, goonism, score settling and the Neanderthal tactics and threats that have so often disgraced the game.
Hockey players, hockey officials and hockey fans can rightly be proud of that. The rest of the world should take note.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
11dScott Burnside and Craig Custance