Until today’s quarterfinal play-in games that saw Slovenia surprise Austria, Latvia surprise Switzerland and Slovakia damn near pull out a miracle versus the Czechs, the hockey hadn’t really been all that thrilling. The lack of parity has positioned underdogs to play a slightly more aesthetically pleasing version of trap-era New Jersey Devils’ hockey, the top teams have rarely had to shift out of third gear, and unfamiliar powerplay units had been fumbling with pucks that handled like footballs during the round robin tournament.
While everyone expects the hockey to get better (as it started to yesterday), I thought I’d take a look at the hockey that’s been played to date and highlight a few NHL/Olympics differences that have stood out to me during this year’s tournament so far. Hopefully some of the trends can clue us into things we can expect to see in the quarters and beyond.
There’s a ton of d-zone sagging
While teams in the NHL don’t exactly play man-on-man coverage in their own end, most do use some version of layering, which involves being a bit more aggressive. The general rule there is that defenders play soft until they see a bobbled puck – at the first hint of that, they’re pedal-to-the-floor, hoping to create a 50/50 battle for a loose puck instead of letting their opponent regain control and continue their possession.
In Sochi, particularly with the lesser teams, we’re seeing them basically pull together into a tight square in front of their net with the extra defender fronting the guy with the puck and inviting him to either take a low percentage shot or to try to beat him one-on-one (which isn’t a high percentage option). The other four defenders are often so tight (sagging) that there’s no middle soft spot, making it seem pointless to head there for opposing forwards (it’s not, in my opinion, but there’s certainly no immediate reward – a shot – as there may be in the NHL).
Because of that, we’re seeing a lot of shots from curious distances. They aren’t your usual one-timers from d-men (the distance from the blueline to the net are different in NHL/Olympic play), or your usual soft-spot slot shots (©Justin Bourne Feb. 19th, 2014), they’re hopeful mid-range shots taken before players approach this defensive sag. They might go in but probably won’t, so if you’re a team like Switzerland and you know you’re going to need some luck you’ll happily take that deal, especially with Jonas Hiller in net.
There’s less time wasted on “intimidation”
It’s not that challenging to hit a guy when his shoulders are against the boards and he’s moving in one direction. Unless he bails out, which you can read too, you’ve got him dead to rights, so you might as well put a lick on him to encourage him to rush plays in the future, then bounce off him and carry on your merry way.
With the extra width of the international ice you’ve got to take a good number of additional strides to get a guy against the wall like that, so if you do decide to go finish that check, there’s a gigantic uncovered area of ice where you used to be. Against good players, that’s not a good thing, and recovery isn’t so easy when the rink is 100 feet wide. So, guys are being smart and avoiding chasing hits that take them out of position.
Also of note: there are less plugs whose sole hockey role is to run into people, and fighting punishments are so steep in a tournament that only lasts four-to-seven games that it’s not worth it, so you see guys spending less time on personal vendettas. Hell, if you only get in five or six games and only play 10-15 minutes a night, you better make that Olympic experience count personally instead of getting in a eff-you match with some guy from a country who doesn’t speak your language anyway.
More players are getting flat-out burned
The nice part about playing more passive hockey is that you don’t expose your guys to one-on-one confrontations with superior players, but it’s never entirely unavoidable. You can have all the support you like around your home base, but occasionally you’ll be asked to stop a guy in open ice. And like when Phil Kessel got his wheels up against Slovenia…
…it didn’t end up looking pretty. Guys get burned in the NHL too, but usually it’s not so cringe-worthy. I’ve noticed it most often in the corners on cutbacks. A guy like Sidney Crosby or Matt Duchene or Marian Hossa or whoever can completely shake defenders and create space for themselves, at least enough to get their heads up and look for somewhere to see the puck, which is why you see such long offensive zone possessions.
There’s more passive neutral zone hockey
I’ll keep this one short because the cause is a combination of the first two points: players would rather force opponents to come through them than run out of position and give them options. Savvy players tend to find those and exploit them.
It’s also worth noting that aggressive forechecks require more communication and general chemistry to execute well because you’re reading off your linemates, and most of these guys haven’t played together before. That’d make it a pretty risky endeavour to enter game one of the tourney trying something too frisky. Rules to live by there, kids. Frisky = risky.
Over-passing early, under-passing late
This is extremely anecdotal, but it seemed to my eye that early in the tournament, and early in games in particular, players seemed to defer to their teammates with a frequency I haven’t seen before…and it didn’t go great. Maybe it’s just a product of playing on what guys likely view as all-star teams and that they feel like they should be playing like Harlem Globetrotters-style or something, but it made for some weird shifts with a lot of poor passing.
And as teams fall behind and the game clock clicks down, it feels more and more like you see one-man rushes where guys want to be the nation-saving hero. I dunno. Just seemed like that to my eye, so see if you can recognize anything like this in the coming games to validate that.
Big ice can make hockey seem a little slower at times because players aren’t as rushed to move the puck, but that likely won’t be a problem as we move into games where teams with elite talent face their equals. If you remember anything about how the Olympic finals have gone in past years, “slow” probably wasn’t a describing word that came up much.