If a team from the Eastern Conference has any shot at winning a Stanley Cup this year, it’s going to be thanks to the West grinding itself into fine powder and the eventual Hunger Games-esque victor being so banged up that they’re not the same hockey team they were at the start of playoffs. And really, that scenario isn’t that far-fetched. The team defenses are generally suffocating out West, so it’s going to take some blood and bruises to create anything.
The Los Angeles Kings are safely third in their division and eight points up on the final wild card spot, yet they can’t score goals to save their lives. Here’s the last three teams in the league in goals for:
Yup. Prestigious company you’re keeping there, Kings. But it doesn’t matter – to beat hockey teams you have to score on them, and the Kings give up a league-best 2.06 goals-per-game which is a head-asplode type number. So yes, they’re going to brutal to play in the post-season. Grind, grind, grind.
Beyond the Kings, five of the top seven teams in league goals-against-per-game are from the West, with the St. Louis Blues following up the Kings with a 2.27 nightly goals against.
And they felt the need to upgrade their goaltending.
Basically, I’m not sure if the Blues are going to give up a goal ever again (there’s some potential that might be hyperbole, but you get the point). Read the rest of this entry »
Varlamov should stop that, but Aaltonen shouldn’t be there in the first place.
The Russians, they are Finn-i (ha). Kaput. No more. And that might be literal after Vladimir Putin gets through with ‘em.
Everyone has their own theories about why, and there’s no small amount of varied opinions (more on this from Scott Lewis).
Mine, is simply that their defense wasn’t good enough. And while that’s a commonly accepted fact, I think it has less to do with what most people associate that with – they get burned and give up scoring chances – and more to do with their lack of talent around the puck. Let me explain.
In hockey, true talent comes with cleanliness. Not so much in hygienic sense, as in the ability to manipulate the puck. If I were tossed into that Finland/Russia Olympic hockey game during the peak of my hockey career, you’d notice that I would occasionally bobble a less-than-perfect pass, it would cost me a second, and that lost moment would eliminate the time I would need to find the proper play with the puck. Also, I would get murdered by bigger, faster men, but you’d notice that bad-pass-taking too. Receiving a pass cleanly allows you to get your head up and make a quick pass, instead of having to force it to a guy a second later as the play develops. Read the rest of this entry »
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). Read the rest of this entry »
“Most believe [the Olympic women's hockey competition] is a two-team tournament between the United States and Canada.”
That was a sentence spoken by an NBC Sports anchor on Saturday, hours after the U.S. and Canada devoured the Finns and Swiss, respectively, by a combined score of 8-1, to open this year’s women’s hockey tournament. Had this broadcast professional instead pursued a career in astronomy, one might assume that his assessment of the inky black void in which all known matter exists would note that “Most believe this universe is particularly large and old.”
Of course this is a god damned two-team tournament. It has been pretty much straight through since the inception of the women’s tournament for the Nagano games in 1998, because the U.S. and Canada have competed in the gold medal game in three of the first four tournaments ever held. The one time they didn’t, the U.S. still won bronze with a 4-0 rout of Finland, while Canada once again stomped the Swedes 4-1.
You hear talk that “the gap is narrowing.” Sure it is. The sun is also slowly but surely using up all its internal fuel and will eventually run out. But that’s like 5 billion years away, so there’s really no sense in worrying about it just yet.
As much as I love women’s hockey, though, things are getting worse for any non-North American team, not better. The big two have played four games, and scored 20 goals. They’ve allowed one. A plus-19 goal differential. All that remains in the group stage is a showdown on Wednesday between the two superpowers. And guess what: It literally almost doesn’t even matter at all; both have already qualified for the semifinals, and the loser will draw the winner of the quarterfinal game between the third-place team in Group A (which they will have already demolished earlier on) and whoever wins Group B (probably Russia, but maybe Sweden). Whichever team that is will pose no problem for the only two hockey powers in the Olympics worth mentioning. Read the rest of this entry »
The National Hockey League is perhaps the professional sports league that is perhaps most willing to appeal to authority and defer to experience than any other. You can say it’s to do with how much hockey treasures its past, and maybe that’s true, but that doesn’t mean it’s not detrimental to the sport itself.
We got a pretty good case-in-point example of this when the Devils, predictably, gave Martin Brodeur the start in the Devils’ first-ever outdoor game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. It was very much a “thanks for everything” moment, and perhaps the team didn’t really care so much about the end result. The guy’s been the face of the franchise almost since he came into the league, so of course they were going to give him the start in that particular game. It was a Special Experience, and all that.
Of course, the fact that Brodeur got bombed for six goals against on 21 shots, bringing his save percentage for this, his age-41 season, below .900 for what has to be the first time ever after 28 games in his career. To judge any goaltender on a .714 save percentage in any 40-minute stretch is of course unfair, but this is in fact reflective of a trend that has plagued the Devils all year.
Asked why he was starting Brodeur, who went into the game with a .905 save percentage, over Cory Schneider, who was on the bench with his sitting at .928, coach Peter DeBoer said nothing about the experience or how much he’s meant to the franchise. What he said, instead, was baseless and ridiculous: “I’m not a big stats guy. I think those numbers are misleading.” Read the rest of this entry »
These days the most commonly used euphemism for the NHL’s tie-solving shootout is “the skills competition,” given that the All-Star Game’s meaningless version is the only other time fans are exposed to the one-on-one, player-on-goalie multi-attempt action. The major difference with the NHL’s in-game version is that it’s the opposite of meaningless, which as a professional wordsmith I have come to learn is “meaningful.” Just last year the Columbus Blue Jackets missed playoffs by a single point and had four shootout losses on their resumé. Another goal or two in those contests would’ve really come in handy, as most teams wind up finding.
People laugh (myself included) at the change in player tone during post-game interviews depending on a team’s win or loss in the “skills comp,” but I kinda get it. When you lose you’re frustrated at putting yourself in a position where it comes down to something that seems out of your control at times, and guys are aware how much each point matters.
With the importance of the shootout in mind (like it or not), I took to the interwebz to see which players have been helping their teams grab full two, and which have been costing their teams points. And my word, was I surprised at the latter group.
The list below is ranked in order of performance versus expectations, not raw numbers. As in, Sidney Crosby being 0-for-3 would be looked at as worse than some plug being 0-for-5 or 1-for-8 or whatever, in this imaginary world where plugs get lots of attempts. (Crosby, for what it’s worth, is 1-for-2, and 23-for-55 lifetime – that’s 41.8% total – well above the league’s current shooter average of 32.79%)
A few notes on the shootout before we jump in
Read the rest of this entry »
File this observation on “soft spots” under “Purely Anecdotal” for the time being.
I have this distinct memory of being in my late teens and watching Mario Lemieux sit on the powerplay, as so many players do today, with his stick cocked above waist height, inviting his teammates to get him a puck. Basically, just stuff a bullet in this gun, and I promise to shoot it and shoot it well. Ovechkin does it, Stamkos does it, just about everyone playing the point on the powerplay does it. …The thing was, Mario Lemieux was on the goal line.
Lemieux’s skates used to essentially touch the icing line on the left side, his right-handed stick sitting a foot or two above it. Sometimes he was deep enough to touch the boards in the corner if he reached. He didn’t have the game’s hardest shot, but goddamn if he couldn’t place a one-timer accurately enough to kiss the inside of the far post and put one on the board for his team. Whether that was a skill other players didn’t have, or whether they just lacked the confidence to try it, you didn’t see it much around the league then.
This isn’t the one I’m thinking of, but you can see where he’s shooting from. Read the rest of this entry »