I didn’t come across too many people saying it last night, but there were definitely those that were sharing their thought that Eric Gryba should’ve recognized a vulnerable Lars Eller and let up. I’m not exactly sure what “let up” means, but assume it means something along the lines of “sidestep a player and let him start an odd-man rush.” Maybe it means wrap him up with a bear hug and take a penalty. …You can probably guess the stance I’m going to take here.
In college we used to do a drill where two forwards would skate from the neutral zone down into their defensive zone, regroup, take a pass from a coach, and head the other direction for a two-on-two rush. The d-men popped out at the same time the forwards left center to head into their own zone. The fun part was that the drill was meant for the defenseman to work on their gap control, so the forwards didn’t have to just swing into the d-zone, cross and rush.
Sometimes one guy would stretch the far blue, sometimes the guys would curl up the wings, or cross in the middle, or do whatever the hell they wanted. It was on the d-men to communicate and kill the rush. I’d say forwards got shots on net roughly half the time, probably less when the d-men were on.
The best defenseman at the drill was a smaller guy who skated well and hit like a ton of bricks, because he could use his wheels to get up on that initial pass and play a tight gap, and if you happened to be looking back at the coach who was passing the puck out of the corner, would occasionally put you on your ass (much to the team’s – and his – delight).
The thing for the forwards is, most defenseman back off and play it safe, not wanting to take the chance of whiffing on the hit and letting a rush start the other way. It’s a small risk, but if you time it well, you can nip a rush in the bud, create a turnover, maybe throw a momentum-altering big hit, and get the puck back. Instead of the play heading into your own zone, you can get it back and go on offense.
When Eric Gryba reads the Rafael Diaz pass to Lars Eller, he absolutely does the right thing by trying to do what I’m talking about. If his job in the Canadiens’ neutral zone defense is to be above the opposing center, to see that play coming and stop the rush before it starts is a perfect read. And as a physical guy (one of the reasons he’s in the NHL in the first place), darn right you’re going to look to pop a guy. The next time a Canadiens forward comes through the neutral zone he might be looking over his shoulder a little bit more and miss a pass. You don’t want the game to be easy on your opponent, or you end up looking like the Islanders and Leafs did in Game 1. Fear is a very real thing.
You can advocate for him using a pokecheck there, but that’s upping your risk factor monumentally. If he misses that three-inch-wide puck with a poke, he’s already committed to letting the body by, and so it goes – bye-bye. It can hop, get redirected, be one-touched, it can do a million things, and it might. But if you’ve ensured that the opposition is going on a rush with one less player, you’ve done your job. And as a d-man not exactly at the top of the depth chart, doing your job is sort of a no-brainer.
I like to think I’m a fairly progressive guy, but just because Lars Eller doesn’t know Gryba is pinching doesn’t mean Gryba shouldn’t be allowed to hit him. In that instance, it’s on Eller to try to make the breakout, not be given it (well actually, in this case it’s on Rafael Diaz to not make the pass, but I think you get what I’m saying). If the policy was that you can’t hit guys who don’t expect to be hit, the least aware players among us get rewarded. That’s not how the Darwinian evolution of professional athletes plays out.
You can debate the contact all you want. You can decide for yourself whether you think he should be suspended or not. But it’s not up for debate whether Gryba should’ve stepped up and made the hit. He made a great read, and was aiming to stop a team breaking out. It’s just unfortunate it played out the way it did.