Was I the only person thoroughly entertained by the Flyers’ stall tactics during their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning?
30 seconds into the first period of Wednesday’s game in Tampa Bay, Braydon Coburn of the Philadelphia Flyers received the puck from his defence partner Kimmo Timonen. Seeing the familiar 1-3-1 neutral zone setup of the Lightning, Coburn decided to wait for an opening.
And he waited. And waited.
For 30 seconds he waited, with the puck a foot away from his stick. Finally, the referees blew the play dead under Rule 72, refusing to play the puck.
3 minutes later, Chris Pronger got the puck in his own end, and once again the Lightning retreated into their 1-3-1 formation. So Pronger skated in circles for another 30 seconds until the referees got sick of it and blew the play dead again, this time without any particular reason, as Pronger was playing the puck and was not in violation of Rule 72.
It happened again with just over 5 minutes left in the first period, as Pronger skated in slightly larger circles for another 30 seconds. This time, the Lightning blinked first, as Teddy Purcell skated in on the forecheck leading to 30 seconds of actual hockey. As soon as the Flyers got the puck back in their own zone, however, the waiting game resumed. This time it was Andrej Meszaros skating the puck in circles and it went on for over a minute-and-a-half.
While the two teams stared each other down like it was high noon at the OK Corral, the Flyers bench stood up and yelled at the Lightning players on the ice. Pierre McGuire suggested that they were calling the Lightning “chickens.” I’m pretty sure the word they used was more mammalian than avian, though the meaning is similar. The Flyers obviously considered Tampa Bay’s refusal to forecheck cowardly. The Lightning probably thought the Flyers’ refusal to, y’know, play hockey was pretty cowardly as well.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter: it was hilariously entertaining. It was pure absurd spectacle, a complete train wreck of a situation that I could not stop watching. I loved it. Even as it continued through the first period and again in the second period, I was entertained. The Flyers showed me something I had never seen before in the NHL.
The critics, however, came out of the woodwork with knee-jerk reactions and suggestions of basketball-style 30-second clocks or limitations on how many skaters can go backwards in the neutral zone. Suddenly, Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 was destroying hockey and threatening to return hockey to the bad old days of the neutral zone trap slowing down the game, reducing scoring, and killing fan interest.
Whoa, hang on a minute. Let’s inject a few facts into the mix. First of all, the Lightning have been playing the 1-3-1 system since Boucher arrived in Tampa Bay last season. That season, Boucher was hailed as innovative and cerebral as he led the Tampa Bay Lightning from 12th place in the East in 2009-10, to the Eastern Conference Final and one game from the Stanley Cup Final. He finished fourth in Jack Adams voting. No one seemed to have much of a problem with the 1-3-1 last season.
During the game, McGuire, who was between the benches, repeatedly claimed that such a system would limit star players from playing to their full potential. Apparently McGuire,and I’m as shocked as you are, doesn’t have any clue what he’s talking about. Last season, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos were 2nd and 5th in the league in points respectively and Stamkos finished second in goals. All while playing the 1-3-1 system.
Some commentators are concerned that the 1-3-1 system limits offence and leads to boring games. Sorry, that’s not true either. The Lightning were 7th in the NHL in goals per game last season with 2.94. They were also 22nd in the NHL in goals against per game with 2.85. In terms of overall goals for and against per game, the Lightning were 5th in the NHL with 5.79. Their games were among the highest scoring games in the NHL last season.
Then there’s the claim that fans won’t pay to watch the 1-3-1 system. Again, not true. In 2009-10, the Lightning were 21st in the NHL in attendance with an average of 15,497 fans per game. Last season, the Lightning ended up 17th in attendance, with their average fans per game going up to 17,268. So far this season, the Lightning are 8th in attendance, with an average of 19,150 fans per game. Funny, it seems like their attendance has increased in proportion to how many games they win.
It’s not that the Lightning don’t forecheck in their system; they forecheck in their own way and at the right time. When the puck was below the Flyers’ goal line, they sent in multiple forecheckers and created several turnovers. Once the puck was safely controlled by Philadelphia, however, the Lightning set up their 1-3-1 formation. When they were down a goal, though, they sent in a forechecker in all situations.
The Flyers approach in this game was hilarious, but it’s not an indictment of the 1-3-1. They essentially admitted that they had no way of breaking the Lightning system and so simply decided not to play. It’s essentially equivalent to taking your ball and going home.
Here’s the kicker: the Flyers are currently the highest scoring team in the league. The Lightning limited them to 15 shots and just 1 goal. Or rather, the Flyers limited themselves. Anyone who fears that other teams will be tempted to try the Flyers’ tactic against the Lightning is deluding themselves: the Flyers lost the game and only managed to score one goal. What team is going to be stupid enough to try to beat the Lightning that way again?
Some people will say that the game was nationally televised and was boring. Well, whose fault is that? The Lightning played their system the same way they have all this season and all last season. It was the Flyers choice to stall and try to goad the Lightning into abandoning their system. The Flyers were the ones playing boring hockey, not the Lightning.
“That’s not hockey in my book, but whatever,” said Pronger after the game. “The league’s letting them do it. Would you pay money to watch that? I wouldn’t either. That was a TV game, too. Way to showcase the product.”
Ah, irony. I’m surprised Pronger didn’t just stare at the reporters until they answered their own questions.