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.

The Flyers know that's what we want them to do, right?

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.

Ilya Bryzgalov taking a break while Chris Pronger skates in circles with the puck.

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.

Comments (21)

  1. Oh you’re gonna catch it for this, but I love it. It was a stupid tactic for the simple reason that TB’s defense has been sketchy at best so far this season–losing races to the puck and battles in the corners, which is where the 1-3-1 is partly designed to send the puck. If Philly had done that they’d have pressed the TB defense and tested Roli sorely and might have had a better chance to win.

  2. Is that picture of Bryzgalov legit? I wasn’t watching the game at all times but I could definitely see him doing that.

  3. Finally, someone got it right. Thank you.

  4. hate to say it, but have to agree with pronger on this one. i watched the TB series last year against Washington. it was such brutal, awful hockey i had to turn it off… AND I WATCH THE LEAFS!!!!!!

    • And what about the Bruins vs. Tampa. Fast-paced, exciting hockey. Game 7, albeit 1-0, has been called one of the best games in recent memory.

  5. I loved the game … thought it was entertainingly hilarious. Suggest they rename them to the Philadelphia Circlers.

  6. People who say that this system is ruining high scoring hockey are simply ignorant. Thank you for setting the numbers straight. Philly only wanted to play as long as TB played the way Philly wanted. It was absurd.

  7. danielson
    an astute analysis. it’s always a delight to read or hear something other than the immediate
    pavlovian responses to something out of the ordinary. you’re right: it was amusing, though not something i’d want to watch on a nightly basis. and since the stalling tactic was obviously a failure, i’m certain i won’t have to.

  8. I think it showed more than anything else that Laviolette didn’t know how to answer the 1-3-1 forecheck.

  9. Perfect analysis. The job of the teams isn’tnto entertain (which I agree they did) it’s to win the game, however they think they can. I think the Flyers refusal to play is what hindered the game.

  10. Good article and you make great points. Didnt the Bruins beat tampa in the playoffs last year? Did tampa stop using the 1-3-1 in the playoffs. I dont think so.

  11. hmmm this blog post is biased. first of all, the 1-3-1 system slowed down Stamkos’ scoring later on in the season, and tampa’s games were high scoring early in the season not later on. they got roloson later on and started to use the 1-3-1 more.

    2ndly, The number of fans only went up because stamkos tied for the maurice rocket richard trophy last year. they wanted to see the new star on their team. the 1-3-1 system had nothing to do with it.

    now about the flyers tactics… they were pathetic. Havent the lightning lost a few games this season…. they could have learnt from that and played proper hockey. waiting out is allowed in the game but its frowned upon. Its not as if the lightning are unbeatable and you have to resort to these tactics.

    • Did the 1-3-1 slow down Stamkos or was it just a fairly typical slump from a 20-21 year old?

      Did the number of fans go up because of Stamkos or because, y’know, the team was winning and in the playoff race? Because the 1-3-1 system had a lot to do with them winning.

      I agree about the Flyers tactics, but they were still kind of hilarious.

    • First off, all i have to say is that was a pretty entertaining game. And no offense, but the one intresting thing versus had to say was that Stamkos was playing with a suggnifigant upper body injury late in the season. Also, how come the Flyers didn’t try to do anything, they should be the chikens, sinve they were unable to work hard, and find a way to solve the 1-2-1. How come the first time people wine about this is when the game is on national telivision? The t.v. kinda blew outa porportion, talk about bias.

    • Fans did not go for just one player, Tampa was winning games, and was playing for a playoff spot. To say it was for and only one player is short-sighted.

      Also Stamkos in 09-10 season scored 51 goals and 95 points, in the 10-11 season he scored 45 goals and 91 points. Yes there is reduction in goals scored but it’s not like he from 51 to 20, he only scored 6 less goals which negligible in reduction.

  12. First of all, you are totally right: it was HUGELY entertaining to watch, one of my favourite moments from the year.

    Second, you’re right, Tampa doesn’t play boring hockey and there is nothing boring about the 1-3-1 they play. We shouldn’t fall into the trap (sorry..) of thinking that Boucher coaches boring hockey. I pick Bolts in my hockey pools because Boucher lets them score a lot.

    One thing I would disagree with you on is the idea that what they did last night was the same as the 1-3-1 they have been doing all year. Yes, it looked like 1-3-1 on the monitor and TSN called it that all night, but this was one of the first times in ages that I’ve seen a team come out and refuse to forecheck in the first period. So for the sake of clarity, I think we should call what Tampa did last night something different, like a “zero forecheck trap”. What Boucher did last night shouldn’t be compared to his typical 1-3-1 and it shouldn’t even be called the ‘trap’ in my opinion, because both of these systems usually involve a forecheck. Crawford said it best last night on TSN when he explained that the 1-3-1 is usually used by Boucher to force the opponent out to the sides, like a wedge, but that last night’s manifestation of the trap was above and beyond the typical usages because his team refused to cross the blueline on defense. So I agree with you, Boucher isn’t a boring coach and the 1-3-1 isn’t a boring system, but last night the system Boucher played was really, really boring.

  13. First off, all i have to say is that was a pretty entertaining game. And no offense, but the one intresting thing versus had to say was that Stamkos was playing with a suggnifigant upper body injury late in the season. Also, how come the Flyers didn’t try to do anything, they should be the chikens, sinve they were unable to work hard, and find a way to solve the 1-2-1. How come the first time people wine about this is when the game is on national telivision? The t.v. kinda blew outa porportion, talk about bias.

  14. The Flyers showed they had no answer for 1-3-1, or were too scared to do anything about it. I don’t see this being much different than the diamond setup for Power Plays, you press and force the defense to react.

    By the way, when did sports become about scoring a lot of points with no defense? When I watch a hockey game, I want to see good defense, as well as good offense, but mostly an offense that will dissect the defensive schemes making screen shots or one-timers.

  15. I think it’s up to the coaches to mobilize their offense and nullify the 1-3-1. Let’s face it, it’s not fool-proof. It’s not impregnable. If the NHL starts dictating what zone defenses are acceptable, it’s only a matter of time before offensive plays are under attack as well. The old “chip and chase” isn’t popular with fans either (it’s also effective against the 1-3-1 defense) but it doesn’t mean we do away with it. On the otherhand, maybe we should have the goalies skate towards each other at full speed for a little joust in sudden death situations, since we’re changing things.

  16. Not that I have a problem with you numbers, but the attendance this season is also up because the St. Pete Times Forum just got a total make-over. They gutted almost everything in the arena and started over from the bare bones of the building. Adding new features: an outside “party” deck, extra food options, all the seats are now cushioned, and so on.

    • Good grief people would look for any excuse to avoid the obvious reality. The Lightning more than doubled their season ticket base prior to anyone seeing any of the renovations (yes they knew something was going to happen but even so it demonstrates interest in the product based on their great run last year).

      Great article with some interesting facts. Sadly (especially here in Canada) hating hockey in Florida is far more important than something like actual facts. Because the Lightning have good attendance now (higher than Ottawa and Vancouver) they are forced to attack something else. So they attack the system (which they had no problem with last year — in fact most people praised it) instead.

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