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Bob Ryan

Power plays play well to the audience

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / June 4, 2011

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Bruins fans have borne witness to back-to-back 1-0 games, which, we would all agree, were riveting, scintillating, exhausting, and altogether unforgettable.

Fine, but have you had enough? Aren’t you ready for something a little different tonight?

Now, while Tampa Bay 7 and Vancouver 1 each had a 1-0 outcome, they were very different, and not just because the Bruins won the former and lost the latter. Tampa Bay 7 was that rarity of rarities: a penalty-free game. Vancouver 1 brought the power play and penalty kill into the game in a big way, each team going 0 for 6 or 6 for 6, depending on which aspect of special teams play was being recorded.

We all loved Tampa Bay 7 for the lack of penalties. Why it turned out that way was pretty self-evident. The players were on their absolute best behavior, curbing the natural hockey player tendency to let the opposition know they were around with indiscriminate hooking, tripping, slashing, holding, boarding, high-sticking, and that most nebulous of malfeasances, interfering.

“There weren’t any what I call ‘lazy’ penalties,’’ confirms Bruins president Cam Neely, who, you may recall, used to play a little in his day.

With such high stakes, no one on either side wished to be the one whose borderline penalty created a power play for the other side that would result in a goal. The self-discipline of all the participants was exemplary. This is not to say there was no hitting, but what physical play there was happened to be, well, thoughtful.

Referees Dan O’Halloran and Stephen Walkom likewise recognized the moment. It was clear that in order to get either one of these gentlemen to raise his right hand someone was going to have to do something very, very nasty.

Vancouver 1 was another matter. We had penalties, we had mutual chippiness, and we even had Bitegate. The power plays were on display and the penalty-killing units, starting with goaltenders Roberto Luongo of Vancouver and Tim Thomas of Boston, were put to the test. The defenses prevailed, the only score being Raffi Torres’s even-strength goal with 18.5 seconds remaining.

So, there are two questions before us as we put our game faces on for tonight’s affair at Rogers Arena: 1. How many 1-0 games is enough? 2. Are games without power plays sufficiently entertaining?

The answer to Question 1 is pretty clear. Enough is enough, wouldn’t you agree? This isn’t international football. After a while, you’d like to see a few goals. Having a 1-0 game decide who gets into the Stanley Cup Final made for tremendous drama, and none of us would trade that experience for any conceivable alternative. It was a true sports fan’s delight, but the context is what made it so special. It wouldn’t have resonated quite so much on Nov. 8 or Feb. 15.

The answer to Question 2 is less clear, and it’s something few hockey people ever contemplate. But it does seem to be a safe statement that hockey without power plays would lose a lot over the long haul. From a fan’s point of view, when the referee does raise his right hand, it stimulates people on both sides of the equation. The fans of the team receiving the power play start thinking of seeing a red light — fans of teams other than the Boston Bruins, that is — flash behind the net, while the fans of the team committing the penalty steel themselves for the drama that will unfold as their team tries to keep the ol’ biscuit from finding its way into the basket. They will glance to see how much time is left on that penalty at least 10 times during those suspenseful two minutes.

“I think it’s great for the fans when their team is trying to kill off a penalty,’’ opines ESPN analyst Barry Melrose, he of the intriguing wardrobe. “They like to see their guys block shots and their goalie make saves. On the other side, you get to see the passing and shooting.’’

We sometimes tend to forget what a major part of the game special teams are, and how we’d miss them if they weren’t around. “A team spends a lot of its time, at least one-third, working on special teams,’’ Melrose points out. “If you took special teams out of the game, you lose a lot of good coaching.’’

We all know we couldn’t have a more contrasting matchup in this Stanley Cup Final than one between the Canucks, who thrive on the power play, and the Bruins, who would be better off if the rules allowed them to refuse penalties, a la football. The Bruins’ ongoing power-play futility is beginning to mystify NHL experts, who cannot bring themselves to believe a team can win the Stanley Cup without at least the occasional benefit of a power-play goal.

It has reached the point where the Bruins are now openly talking about a preference for five-on-five hockey, and that may be an NHL first. But that is a very tough way to do business.

“I think Boston played a perfect game vs. Tampa Bay,’’ says Melrose. “And I’d say they played pretty close to a perfect game on Wednesday against a better team. The bad news is they only got one win out of two perfect games.’’

In a perfect Bruins world, they would replicate Tampa Bay 7, while adding a few additional five-on-five goals, of course. But it’s unlikely much will change now. The essential dynamics of this series are unlikely to change. Vancouver will lust for power plays, while the Bruins will merely tolerate them.

We have seen our last penalty-free game this year; we know that much. That’s good news for anyone tuning into the game tonight. Tampa Bay 7 was a blissful oddity, but in the end it was all about the context.

“I don’t think neutral fans want to see a penalty-free game,’’ says Melrose.

Hockey needs power plays. If the Bruins don’t have one, that’s their problem.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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