Every spring, in a classroom somewhere near middle America, a high school Biology teacher looks out over a class of disinterested freshman too occupied with thoughts of the coming summer sun to care about science and says, "Ladies and gentlemen, if you ever want to win the Nobel Prize and go down in the annals history, you will solve the following problem."
The teacher's immediate intent is to pique the curiosity of thirty-five hormonally imbalanced teenagers, but his unspoken hope is that one day, from one of myriad speeches to one of myriad classes, one of his students will accept his challenge and make the world a better place for ever more.
When Mario Lemieux came back to hockey, there were hundreds of pundits who hoped he would bring the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh, precious few of whom were actually Penguin fans. Yet whether they were fans or not, their quiet desire was common and it involved more than just one city and one team. Their unspoken hope was that Mario might accept the challenge and make the world of hockey a better place for ever more.
The goal, which few talked openly of, was to rid the game of the Neutral Zone Trap and its marginally prettier, sister scheme, the Left Wing Lock. The want was to open up the game so that skill could again carry the day just as it did when Gretzky scored over two hundred points in a single season, or when Mario put up over one-seventy.
For the better part of a decade now, success in the NHL has been married to these two systems not only because they produce championships, but because they give a team, regardless of player talent or organizational payroll, a shot at the post-season. From the outset, the systems' intent was merely to produce wins, which they did, only in doing so they turned hockey into a frightening bastardization of soccer.
Great offensive talents have been clutched, grabbed, held, tripped, and checked into submissionor, in Mario's case, into retirement. In short order, playmakers saw disciplined teams remove open ice from the game and started rushing back to their own blueline in fear they might get scored on and lose 1-0, again. Offense became the occasional byproduct of stiff defense and rather than actively creating, these talents were retroactively taught to passively prevent. Taking chances became passé; calculated risks, haute couture.
Taking its cue from the state of the society which envelopes it, hockey appears to have become yet another place where success is defined more by the failure it avoids than by any accomplishment it actually achieves. Rather than the bliss of what is, it has become the relief of what isn't.
In two decades the NHL went from an age of unfettered offensive talent, where teams and individuals had dump trucks full of points within hockey that was riveting television; to an era of Stanley Cup games that stay scoreless through four periods.
But Mario was going to change all that. Mario was coming back because the game was opening up again. The excitement was going to return, the odd-man rush would be taken off the endangered species list, and Mario's first few weeks back proved it. Even the losses were eleven goal thrillers.
Unfortunately, they were still losses.
For those who expected the game to change overnight, today must seem grotesquely eerie as Mario's Penguins score two goals in the first period and try to sit on their lead for the next forty minutes. It has to be surreal to see someone who averaged over two points a game for his entire career stay at home to backcheck ten minutes into the game rather than make a break for the kill.
The Penguins first round series was a technical marvel, six games of relatively mistake-free hockey by both teams. It was something any strategist had to love and its nationwide TV ratings assuredly rivaled those regularly reeled in by The Food Channel.
Such are the realities of the time. Blame it on expansion, payroll inequity, a dearth of talent, a surplus of talent, Global Warming, or what have you, the bottom line is that the safer the plan, the less margin for error. The lower the margin for error, the more a team can win and the more revenue there is to make Rob Blake a reality at the deadline.
Right now is about money, and no team must realize it more than Mario's Penguins. They play in the oldest building in the league, their entire second line consists of restricted free agents in need of a pay raise, and their General Manager is up for a new contract at season's end as well. At this moment in Pittsburgh hockey history, it is time to win by any means necessary. Thus, along side the overwhelming joy the world must feel to finally have NHL hockey in the American vacation meccas of both San Jose, California and Columbus, Ohio, stands the sobering reality that, but for a few moments a game, professional hockey has become a contest where the object is no longer winning, but rather not losing.
The underlying hope here is that the Penguins spent their first six playoff games playing possum, that like all great teams they understood when it was necessary to play another's game in order to advance so much further down the road. But now, with that in the past, they can open it up. Now they can become the team Mario envisioned when he visualized stepping back onto the Igloo ice.
Only that would involve risk.
The more the Penguins become the team of Mario's dreams, the greater the margin for error; and the more one looks at Buffalo's stifling defense and pedestrian, opportunity-based offense, the more one starts to see the Penguins' probable need to play a second series close to the vest.
If only for the sake of the future, it would appear that opening the game back up may again have to wait. Yet the more a team plays for tomorrow, the further off tomorrow gets, and the more a teacher tries only to inspire others, the longer their surrounding society has to wait for that one someone who will make the world a better place for ever more.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and though it would pain him greatly, he would rather see the Pens lose the Conference Semi-Finals in seven high-scoring games than win it in five low-scoring Trap, Lock 'n clutch-fests.