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Kovacevic: NHL needs a Sunshine Law

| Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011

At its heights, there is no sport on the planet like hockey, nothing that matches its mix of skill and speed, toughness and tenacity.

Examples abounded Tuesday night in the Penguins' 6-3 comeback victory over Colorado, a fun, free-flowing affair in which the Avalanche's Matt Duchene scored the goal of the year at Consol Energy Center only to be topped later by Evgeni Malkin's decisive dazzler.

It's a beautiful game.

Except when someone tries to exploit it with a strategy so defensive that it strips away its aggressive soul.

The culprit once was the New Jersey Devils, who would win three Stanley Cups but barely any fans with their neutral-zone trap that damaged the NHL brand for more than a decade.

Now, it's the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Penguins' opponent Thursday.

The Boring Bolts follow coach Guy Boucher's ultra-passive 1-3-1 scheme in which all five skaters drop back into the neutral zone — one high, three lined across the blue line and one defenseman way back — and wait until the opponent skates into the clothesline for a turnover.

Not one forechecker!

As the Penguins' Matt Cooke put it Tuesday, "Really exciting stuff, huh?"

Yeah, a blast. And that's why I so thoroughly enjoyed how the Philadelphia Flyers embarrassed the Lightning a week ago on Tampa's home ice.

Did you catch the clip on YouTube?

Chris Pronger, Philadelphia's veteran defenseman, took the lead role by setting up the breakout, surveying the ice and then, on coach Peter Laviolette's orders, he just stood inside a defensive faceoff circle. Seriously. The puck didn't move. No players moved. And this went on for 30 eternal seconds until the referees blew the puck dead, citing Rule 72.1 that requires officials "to enforce continuous action."

During those 30 seconds, according to accounts close to ice level, the Flyers stood at their bench to call the Lightning "cowards," among other insults to their manhood. On the ice, Philadelphia forward Daniel Briere motioned to Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis, the high man in the 1-3-1, and shouted, "Go get the puck! We're not moving until you do!"

The Flyers' strategy wasn't smart — they're the better team, and they held themselves to 15 shots in a 2-1 loss — but the message clearly took priority.

"That's not hockey in my book," Pronger barked to reporters that night. "What do you want us to do if they're not going to forcecheck• If they want to just stand there, why would I want to skate into it• The league's letting them do it, too. Would you pay money to watch that• I wouldn't."

Regardless of your rooting interest related to the Flyers, give them high marks for taking a stand. It's ridiculous to try to expand the sport's footprint this way, especially in the south. And it's that much more ridiculous with a roster that includes the exciting trio of St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier.

Moreover, goals per game are down to 5.54, threatening a seven-year low, and that will worsen if the Lightning become a model as the Devils once were.

The message clearly was received, as the Flyers-Lightning stalemate came up at the NHL's general managers meeting yesterday in Toronto. The GMs never discussed a rule to dissuade the 1-3-1 but did resolve to "monitor" future stalemates. Afterward, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was forced to defend the strategy to reporters, saying, "Tampa Bay plays virtually the same way that every team in the league does."

That's baloney, and Yzerman, one of the flashiest players of his generation, knows it.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if such a rule were instituted?

"Not going to happen," Cooke said to that point. "It's not like basketball where you can call an illegal defense. Plus, it would create too many stoppages."

In the next breath, though, he added, "Maybe you can penalize a team if it doesn't have any players within two zones of the puck."

I think he was being serious. If so, sounds like a start to me. It's well past time to restrict coaches like Boucher who have handcuffed the game. A two-minute minor should suffice. We can even call it the Sunshine Law.

Dan Bylsma and the Penguins largely applauded the Flyers' symbolism, if not the strategy itself. Their view, going back to the playoff loss to the Lightning last spring, is that the 1-3-1 can be beaten by chipping the puck behind it or by firing long shots on goal. Expect to see those again tomorrow.

Either that, or Kris Letang could improve upon Pronger's loitering technique.

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