Aside from being a major statement of legitimacy, last night's 4-1 victory over the Red Wings was a fascinating window into the Bruins' formula for success -- a formula that's resulted in a sterling 11-1-1 record in the month of November including wins over Detroit, Chicago, and Montreal, and a regulation/OT tie against the Rangers.
The Red Wings are a puck-possession team in the strictest sense -- they beat you by denying you the opportunity to dictate the terms of engagement. This strategy works more often than not, especially against shallow or streaky teams, by giving Detroit more opportunities than their opponents. This was in full display for the first 5-10 minutes of last night's game, when the Bruins were so far back on their heels that it looked as if they might just keel over and surrender.
But then a funny thing happened. The Bruins didn't buckle under the pressure. In fact, they flourished. By the end of the first frame they had scored enough goals to win the game. Despite a 10-7 advantage in shots, the Wings trailed 0-2. Even more startlingly, they rang up a 15-5 shots advantage in the second period but could only manage a 1-1 draw in goals.
Though this seems counterintutive at first glance, it points to one of the driving factors in Boston's hot streak: quality of shots. Take a look at the shot chart for this game, and imagine a box extending from the goal line to each faceoff dot, to the top of the circles and across the slot to the other side.
Now, note the number of shots that were taken inside this box: in the first period, the Bruins outshot the Wings in this area by a count of 5-4, including a goal. In the second, the Wings held a 7-4 advantage... but the majority of their shots were at the outer edge of the box or at sharp angles from the side of the net. In the third, Detroit managed a paltry one shot from inside the box, whereas the Bruins took 4 more and scored another goal.
Of course, there are other factors at play -- the Bruins blocked 15 shots to the Wings' 3, suggesting that a defensive wall around the crease was a major factor. The Bruins also outhit the Wings and created more turnovers, by slim margins. And ultimately they benefitted from better goaltending, as Manny Fernandez continued to challenge Tim Thomas' claim to the #1 position.
But the game boiled down to something simple: the Bruins found an antidote for the Wings' possession-based strategy. By forcing low-quality shots and diligently blocking as many as possible, they turned Detroit's leverage into a disadvantage -- nullifying long possessions, creating confidence for Fernandez and creating opportunities for quick-strike breakouts. What should have been a statistical advantage for the Red Wings (more opportunities = more goals) actually began to favor the Bruins, and by the 10-minute mark of the first period that theoretical advantage had turned into hard results.
It was a statement, all right, but also a shift in the philosophy of winning hockey games -- a curiously Zen approach to allowing the opponent's strength to become his weakness.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Aside from being a major statement of legitimacy, last night's 4-1 victory over the Red Wings was a fascinating window into the Bruins' formula for success -- a formula that's resulted in a sterling 11-1-1 record in the month of November including wins over Detroit, Chicago, and Montreal, and a regulation/OT tie against the Rangers.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
It's a clash of the titans tonight in the marquee matchup of the weekend: Bruins vs. Red Wings in Boston. Each team is #2 in their conference, with games in hand on the #1 seed. Needless to say, this is a true measuring-stick game for both sides and a very possible Finals preview. The matchup is so good that it speaks for itself, but here are a few items to chew on as we lead up to gametime:
- Boston is tied for 2nd in the East in goals-per-game, and is tops in goals-against. The Wings are 2nd and 11th, respectively.
- Detroit's power-play operates at an astounding 32.3%. Boston tops the East at 23.3%.
- Word is now out that Marco Sturm is sidelined with a concussion. Apparently he suffered it in the 11/12 game against the Hawks, played three more matches (scoring two against the Habs) and was finally told to sit. He expects to be back soon, but this is the sort of injury that saps your scoring depth.
- Milan Lucic owned up to throwing an illegal hit from behind against the Isles' Tim Jackman, apologizing via the media. Though it was a relatively minor incident (Jackman was close to the boards and was not injured), Looch says he needs to be more careful in the future. IMO, the NHL is going to have to address this issue as soon as the Cup is paraded off the ice in June, because it's getting worse daily.
- The Wings called up Darren McCarty for last night's game against Columbus, but he reaggravated his groin injury and will not skate. Also, keep an eye on former Bruin d-man Brad Stuart, who is skating with 9 stitches in his leg after being stomped by Alex Tanguay.
- The Globe reports that Manny Fernandez will start in net -- an unusual move but not unprecedented considering Julien has gone with the hot hand so far this season. Chris Osgood has been brutal for the Wings and was not sharp last night against Columbus; don't be surprised if Conklin gets the nod.
- In the past three games, the Bruins' opponents have opened up the game with a lot of body contact -- and it appears to be working in their favor. Montreal outplayed the Bruins through most of their game, Buffalo pulled off an upset win and the Isles kept it close for 40 minutes. Expect the well-coached and very-physical Wings to come out hitting hard tonight.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Go figure. After years of ignoring the NHL to focus on 24-hour coverage of the Patriots and Red Sox, ESPN.com is actually starting to produce some decent hockey coverage.
All it took was for a Boston team to start winning. We should have figured this out years ago. Expect wall-to-wall Bruins coverage as long as they can stay on top of their division.
Scott Burnside's article on the renaissance of Bruins hockey
Part I and Part II of Burnside's "The Long Road Back" series on Bergeron and Fernandez
John Buccigross' annual Thanksgiving article, which always features Cam Neely in a prominent place. Bucci is one of the good ones.
Burnside give the Bruins an "A" for the first quarter.
Pierre LeBrun reports that readers want to give Timmy the Vezina instead of an All-Star appearance.
Terri Frei has no love, placing Claude Julien alongside Joel Quenneville and Andy Murray in the NHL coaching ranks.
Bruins play in Buffalo tonight after a long layoff. The opponents get much easier after this game; with the exception of Saturday's date with the Red Wings, we won't see another top-5 team until after Christmas.
Things to keep in mind tonight:
- The Sabres will wear their classic road jerseys. It's good for the soul to see them looking like a team that plays on ice skates and not rollerblades.
- Not to make any crazy predictions before Thanksgiving, but a regulation win in this game would put us 13 points ahead of the Sabres with a 3-1-1 record against them head-to-head, and only two matchups left (1/3 and 4/11)... that would pretty much mean we no longer have to worry about them catching up. Not that we should be thinking that way just yet. But I am.
- The Sabres have lost 5 straight. After this game they have the Pens and then the Habs. They play Pittsburgh 3 more times before Christmas. If they don't turn it around in this game, it might not happen at all.
- Ryan Miller usually plays pretty well against us, but last time he melted down and got chased. Will he be intimidated or motivated? We'll see tonight. I suspect he'll play lights-out.
- Buffalo rolls out an outstanding top line, but that's about it. Afinogenov has only scored once this season. Craig Rivet is a -5. Numminen is a great story, but -7 after 20 games is ugly. Still, they're not an easy team to defeat because Lindy Ruff is a great coach. This is a must-win and they should come out fast and furious.
Thoughts on other goings-on leaguewide:
Interesting to see how chippy the Leafs and Thrashers got last night. Combined, these two teams are a veritable chowder of suck, but that just brings frustration to the table and leads to extra intensity. Apparently the Leafs were running Kovalchuk, who finally snapped Bure-style and stood up for himself. Later in the game Jason Blake got explodified by a very illegal jump-check, something we're seeing far too often lately. Check out the highlights here. Leafs fans are now beginning to clamor for an enforcer. Meanwhile, the Thrashers are perhaps the worst-run franchise of all time, at least in terms of player movement.
Patrick Roy's son got suspended for 15 games. No, not that son. The other one. This happened 4 days after Roy's number was retired. Five days after he broke the all-time wins record, the police had to investigate him for domestic battery. Karma has a way of catching up, sometimes quickly, and the way a man runs his family is the truest window into his soul. There is no doubt that Roy was an all-time great. But his legacy shrinks almost daily.
Great writeup on Felix Potvin by Pierre LeBrun. If you liked hockey in the '90s, you probably liked Felix the Cat.
Darren McCarty is now playing in Grand Rapids of the AHL. Claude Lemieux is playing for Worcester. Tragically, Worcester does not play Grand Rapids at all this season.
Keep an eye on Habs/Wings tonight. A win for us and a loss for Montreal would open up a very nice cushion, while the reverse would draw them within striking distance. Meanwhile, we have the Wings on Saturday and it would be nice for them to be a little banged up by the typical Montreal cheapshottery.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Whether or not you're a Bruins fan -- but especially if you're a Bruins fan -- you're probably asking yourself that question every time you look at the league standings. Improbably, almost inexplicably, the B's have rockted to the top of the Eastern Conference by beating or tying every opponent in the month of November so far. They are now 7 points ahead of Montreal in the division, with a steep advantage in tiebreakers.
Considering the Bruins were widely picked to either miss the playoffs or just make the cut as a bubble team, this is a bit of a shock to the dynamics of the East. Suddenly the Habs are struggling to stay ahead of the Devils. Suddenly the Sabres are on the outside of the bracket looking in. Suddenly the Bruins are playing for home ice in a hypothetical Cup series against the Sharks. To say the least, this is not what we expected to talk about while watching the Lions lose on Thanksgiving.
Let's hang on to that last thought -- it's only Thanksgiving. The playoffs start just after April Fool's Day. It's a long road, a difficult one that will be filled with injuries and momentum swings. Things will almost certainly change, especially if it turns out that this team is just a wintertime mirage. So let's look at a few key factors to see if we can spot the potholes in the road to June Hockey:
Goaltending: The #1 element that can kill a team, and it seems to be completely under control. Tim Thomas is in the wonderful position of performing at an elite level AND approaching each game as an underdog. The All-Star snub works quite nicely for motivation, though it stings less when the selection process is a joke. Manny Fernandez has played brilliantly for the most part, and has not become the locker-room cancer I had expected. It will take a major reversal for this to become an issue.
Schedule: Taking the 12-Step Program approach to the schedule, the Bruins are right on track for discharge. We've almost gotten through Step 4 with flying colors, and are approaching the relatively soft Step 5. But look ahead -- extremely tough stretches in December and Februrary could send this young team off the rails. A distinct lack of long road trips will help, but rest and maturity are going to be much needed in those months. One day at a time...
Distractions: Thankfully, there are none. The biggest "distraction" we've seen this season was Lucic choosing to score a goal instead of fight a goon. This will not be a problem for a well-disciplined squad with good team chemistry.
Return to Earth: Sometimes an individual's overachievement can lift the entire team; usually this ends in heartbreak when reality sets in over the course of the season. Fortunately, the Bruins are not seeing a lot of overachievement at the individual level; other than Thomas, everyone seems to be pretty much on a normal track. This team wins with good coaching, good chemistry and good defense. That doesn't leave much likelihood of a reality check.
Injuries: So far the Bruins have been very, very lucky. Chuck Kobasew was out for a month, but his replacements were adequate and he came back with a vengeance. Ference is out for 6 more weeks, but Matt Hunwick might earn a permanent roster spot in his absence. Those situations won't happen every time. There is still talk that Chara's shoulder is less than 100%; we still hold our breath when Bergeron goes into the corners; Lucic's right fist looks like it got caught in industrial machinery every time he fights. This team is deep and disciplined, but could not survive a major injury to Savard, Thomas or Chara. And that can happen at any time, to any player.
Hot opponents: To begin the season, the B's were in the unenviable position of sharing a division with two of the top three teams in the conference. It looked like it would be one of those frustrating seasons when your team is amazingly talented and focused, but has to settle for a 4th place finish and road ice in the second round. Since then, both the Sabres and Habs have stumbled. The Bruins could put a stake in Buffalo's division-title hopes on Wednesday, but Montreal will be a season-long nemesis. There will also be intense competition in the conference from the improving Penguins, surging Flyers and schizophrenic Rangers. Eventually the winning streak will end, and losing streaks will happen, and that will naturally tighten the race.
So from where I sit, two things are pretty clear:
1) Yes, the Bruins are for real. They are not the sort of front-loaded, streaky team that is likely melt down in the home stretch.
2) The most likely "backslide" scenario is for the Bruins to hit the tough December-through-February schedule, suffer a key injury or three, and start feeling the heat of trying to stay ahead of more media-friendly teams in Pittsburgh and New York.
But for the time being, we've got something pretty sweet to be thankful for on Thursday -- a hard-nosed, hard-working team getting its due.
Friday, November 21, 2008
All good things must come to an end, but this hot streak just seems to stretch on and on. Therefore, I believe, we should be prepared for a major letdown very soon. All things considered, I'd rather it be tonight than on Saturday. But first, the positives:
- For most of the season so far, Zdeno Chara has had no room to operate. Even on the PP, he always has a defender stuck to him like glue. That's why he's rarely able to unleash his nuclear slapshot, and hasn't been much of a factor as a pointman. So it's odd that the Sabres (who should know better, since they play him 28 times this season) gave Z so much room -- he scored twice, so don't expect them to do it again Wednesday.
- At their best, the Lucic/Savard/Kessel line is just dreamy to watch. Lucic and Savard are to the 2000s what Neely and Oates were to the 90s. Kessel is something different altogether, a pure goal scorer like the Bruins haven't seen in a long, long time.
- One door closes, another opens: Matt Hunwick has a goal, two assists and a +2 in relief of Andrew Ference. He's got great foot speed and a sense of when to jump into the play. Though he still makes the occasional rookie mistake, his career arc will be a lot like Ference's... which makes this early experience invaluable.
- Games against the Sabres are important enough anyway, but after Wednesday the Bruins will only play them twice -- January 2 and April 11. So winning a 4-point divisional game is huge for a team now eyeing a division title.
- The Panthers are astonishingly low-powered on offense -- Nathan Horton leads them with 11 points (Savard has 25 for Boston).
- Though his stats are poor, Tomas Vokoun is one of the league's elite goaltenders. He can shut you down no matter how you play. Putting him up against Tim Thomas is a great matchup of underrated netminders.
- Jay Bouwmeester still hasn't scored yet this season. Think he's squeezing the stick by now? You better believe he will shoot the puck at every possible opportunity.
- The Bruins have to be very careful not to look past this game to Saturday night, when they visit Montreal for Roy's number retirement. The Montreal media will be on them as soon as this game is over. In a sense, I'd almost rather they lose this one if it helps relieve some pressure against the Habs.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
All my hardcore fans who check this site 6-10 times per day* have probably noticed that I've been away for a few days. I've had slightly bigger fish to fry this week, with the world's newest hockey fan entering the world:
Indeed, little guy. Indeed.
Unfortunately this caused me to miss some juicy blogging material. Here's a quick summary of the past week in the Bruinsphere:
Thursday, 11/13: As a sign to mankind that the most badass hockey fan is being born unto the world, the Bruins pound the ever-living crap out of the Habs. This cathartic moment was sponsored by Milan Lucic's right fist.
Saturday, 11/15: The Bruins play a nearly complete game against the first-place Rangers, but blow a two-goal lead in the final minute and succumb in the shootout. Nevertheless, getting a point in New York after 3 games in 4 days against some of the league's best competition was no small feat.
Monday, 11/17: In a somewhat ugly affair, the Leafs can't quite rally and the Bruins pick up another 'W' to extend their division lead to 4 points. The Leafs are no laughing matter this season, and that Grabovski guy scored again. He's going to be a real pain.
Scattered thoughts from the weekend:
- This season's All-Star voting process has become a huge embarrassment to the league. There are so many things wrong I don't know where to start. Even after HabGate put a question mark on the validity of the vote totals, we are still looking at 6 Canadiens with leads of more than 100,000 votes, roughly double the total of their nearest competitor. I'm with Cornelius Hardenbergh on this one -- I see no point in continuing to feed traffic to the voting website. The write-in campaign for Tim Thomas is effectively a lost cause from the get-go, meaning it is now impossible for him to appear in the game, and I can't shake the feeling that the whole situation is a slap in the face to the players who actually deserve the honor. This may be the first time in 15 years that I don't feel motivated to tune in.
- On a more positive note, Milan Lucic leads the league in hits. Yes, the entire league. His legend is already starting to trickle into mainstream coverage, which is nothing but great news for the sport of hockey. We can only hope that thousands of squirt players buy Lucic jerseys and try to knock each other out of the rink this winter. Lucic = hockey.
- Manny Fernandez has quitely played some stellar games this season, ringing up an impressive 4-1-1 record. More importantly, he and Thomas are all smiles and there has been zero scuttlebutt about Fernandez moping or complaining. After stopping 59 of 61 shots against Buffalo and Montreal, he deserves a few more cracks at that starting job.
- Guys who need to step it up: Chara, Ryder, Bergeron, Krejci.
- Guys who deserve a gold star for effort: Savard, Wideman, Thornton, Kobasew.
- The Habs game and the Stars game have shown us something very valuable about this Bruins squad, something we haven't seen in a long time: These guys won't be fucked with. They give nobody an undue level of respect. Claude Julien has them melded together in a way you'd expect from a junior team, not a bunch of mercenary professionals. This will be valuable in the playoffs, which are suddenly no longer a question. I'm not positive about the division lead, but these guys are not going to implode and disappear like we all imagined they might.
- Elsewhere in the division: Buffalo is fading after a hot start (think fast: am I talking about the Bills or Sabres?), Montreal is playing inconsistently but will be back, the Leafs are talentless but are nobody's doormat, and the Sens are on the verge of Implosion: The Sequel.
* estimate based on internal polling and delusions of grandeur.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Observations from last night's 2-1 SO victory in Chicago:
- It's ridiculous that these teams don't play more often. I understand and support the desire to play more divisional games, but the season is long -- O6 teams need to play at least one game a season in each 06 city. Bruins/Hawks could be the NHL's answer to Celtics/Lakers in five years... if they actually see each other.
- Both goalies played unbelievable games. Khabibulin deserved a win based on his play, especially the highway robbery of Marc Savard in OT. Tim Thomas continues to make a mockery of the All-Star ballot by somehow improving his mind-numbingly good stats. His save % is now approaching .950, for chrissake! Blackhawks fans: I will happily write-in Patrick Sharp for the WC if you will do me a favor and write-in Tim Thomas on the EC section of your vote. This man MUST play in the All-Star game.
- I almost wish I had skipped the first two periods, which were just brutal to watch. Maybe it was good road strategy by the Bruins (bore the crowd after an emotional pep rally/number retirement ceremony), but it made terrible TV. As predicted, the Bruins were dominated in the first period to the tune of an 18-6 shot count, but held out long enough to get back in it.
- Chicago's got a great young core of players and will be very, very good in a couple of years. I hope they don't screw it up by making silly trades to try and win immediately, because a Blackhawks powerhouse would be very good for the NHL. With the right goalie, and maybe 2-3 more years to develop some of the fresh-faced kids into experienced role players, the Hawks will be better than the Roenick/Chelios/Belfour teams of the early 90s.
- Normally Center Ice shows the NESN broadcast, but last night they chose the Comcast feed with Eddie O. calling the game. They had Brent Seabrook wired, and it struck me that he seemed like a bit of a twat, constantly telling forwards their defensive mistakes. Seabrook is 23 years old. But on further review, at age 23 Seabrook already has more NHL experience than 10 of the Blackhawks' 13 active forwards. Defenseman Brent Sopel is the only skater on the roster who has twice as much experience as Seabrook. And Seabrook's 23.
Hub Hockey (Bruins)
The Bear Cave (Bruins)
Stanley Cup of Chowder (Bruins)
Ghost of Ed Litzenberger (Hawks)
Hockee Night (Hawks)
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Tonight the Bruins break a 4-day gameless streak when they visit the Blackhawks for their only matchup this season. Here are a few threads to keep an eye on.
Don't Get Caught Looking: The Bruins, who are playing 4 of the other 5 teams from the Original Six in the next week, have some huge matchups on the schedule. Tomorrow night's game against Montreal will essentially be a grudge match for the division title, and games against the Rangers and Sabres also have major conference implications. It's a textbook setup for the Bruins to come out flat on the road, and get torched by a team in the middle of an important homestand.
Evenly Matched: All the buzz around this game is that the Bruins and Hawks are doppelgangers. Both are young, emerging squads playing for the hearts of their respective cities. Both are focused squarely on the playoffs and developing a winning attitude... with secret hopes that they're witnessing the birth of a dynasty. Both are dealing with an embarrasment of riches in goal. Both come into the game on a hot streak with a division lead within sniffing distance. But their styles are almost entirely opposite -- the Blackhawks have a run-and-gun team stocked with top-shelf talent. The Bruins play tooth-loosening defense and get their offense through depth and tenacity.
Home Cookin': The Blackhawks have not lost a regulation game at home this season (6-0-2). Then again, Boston ended the Sabres' undefeated road record last time they played. It'll be tougher tonight as the Blackhawks are retiring the #3 worn by Pierre Pilote (overdue) and Keith Magnuson. Ideally this would be a distraction, but the Blackhawks have been drawing huge crowds this season and the fans will be expecting a big game.
Matchups: Since they have the advantage on line changes, the Blackhawks will presumably match up their top line of Kane-Toews-Versteeg against the Bruins' 4th line of Thornton-Yelle-Kobasew when possible. I would advise them to do otherwise -- the 4th line has probably been Boston's best at keeping possession of the puck lately. The combination of faceoff prowess, intelligence, speed and hulking body mass have kept the puck squarely in the offensive end of the ice while the Bruins wear down opposing goalscorers. This has been a key... nay, a vital element of their recent success. If I'm Joel Quenneville, I'm matching my scorers against Boston's weaker third line of Sturm-Krejci-Wheeler.
Change Is in the Air?: These teams have a combined Cup drought of 83 years.
Stanley Cup of Chowder
The Bear Cave
Wicked Bruins Fan
Kynch's Bruins Korner
PS -- Vote for Timmy!
The campaign has begun to elect Tim Thomas to his rightful place in the All-Star game (he was left off the ballot despite currently leading the league in GAA and Save %). Don't forget to go to http://fanballoting.nhl.com/ and vote for him. Blackhawks fans, we'd appreciate the support if you are going there to vote for your own guys... on the Eastern Conference section, just write in Timmy's name.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Ok, this is really getting old.
Hmmm... something seems familiar about this scene. It could easily be confused with this one:
Or this one: (at 2:50)
Or this one:
Or this one: (at 0:53)
Just for kicks, let's compare the severity of the injuries above to the level of punishment received by the offender.
Kostopoulos on Van Ryn
Injury: Concussion, broken nose, broken hand; will miss at least a month.
Punishment: 3 games
Jones on Bergeron
Injury: Grade III concussion, broken nose; missed 72 games
Punishment: 2 games
Hollweg on Kostitsyn
Punishment: 1 game
Hollweg on Pietrangelo
Punishment: 3 games
Lemieux on Draper
Injury: Concussion, broken jaw, cheekbone, and orbital bone; reconstructive surgery over the summer.
Punishment: 2 games, $1,000 fine
Bottom line: In the NHL, you can check a player face-first into the boards and expect a 1-3 game suspension -- regardless of circumstance, resulting injury, time of year, time of game, personal reputation or the logo on your jersey.
Protecting Our Players
One to three games. That's all you get for jeapordizing the life and livelihood of other players. Let's compare that to the standard for other major violations:
Assault with Stick -- 25 games (Simon), 25 games (Boulerice), 23 games (McSorely)
Kicking -- 30 games (Simon), 8 games (Pronger)
Abuse of official -- 13 games (Roy), 23 games (Dwyer), 20 games (Lysiak)
Sucker Punch -- 12 games (Johnson), 20 games (Bertuzzi), 21 games (Hunter), 8 games (Domi)
Compare to Boarding – 2 games (Lemieux), 3 games (Hollweg), 1 game (Hollweg), 3 games (Kostopoulos)
The rationale behind the NHL’s suspension policy
Clearly, even the most egregious incidents of boarding – regardless of circumstance – are considered less serious by the league than even the most mild kicking incident. Chris Pronger received 4 times as severe a penalty for a questionable kick than Claude Lemieux received for a very intentional boarding foul.
The rationale for these standards should be familiar to anyone who has followed hockey in the Bettman Era – it’s all a matter of premeditation. The ruling philosophy is that violations which arise from a split-second decision (such as boarding) are naturally less serious than those which require some forethought (such as sucker-punching Ulf Samuelsson).
A second principle at work is that violations arising from in-game play (a crosscheck from behind while battling in the corners) are more serious than those which occur outside the normal scope of the game (a crosscheck to the face 10 seconds after the whistle).
Taking these two principles together, the league concludes that it is both more important and more practical to levy serious suspensions toward premeditated, non-hockey-related suspensions than to police grey-area matters such as boarding. And that is where the NHL loses its credibility.
Is it possible to affect a player’s split-second decisions?
Professional hockey players are quite possibly the most skilled athletes in the world. Despite its frantic appearance, very little of what happens in an NHL game is random or uncontrollable. Players routinely anticipate a bodycheck fractions of a second in advance -- so far ahead of the event that they are able to control the timing and direction of the impact. Asking them to change their thinking in split-second situations is not only practical, it has been done several times in the past decade.
The crease rule… the obstruction crackdown… the goalie trapezoid… in every case, the NHL has identified a significant problem in the game and mandated that players change their quick-decision mentality. In 1999 it was typical for a power forward to time his approach to the net so that his toes entered the goal crease a split-second after the puck – because his job depended on it (this is less of an issue under current rules). In 2006, players had to learn that they could not reach out and grab another player to slow his progress – and if they planned to stay in the league, they adjusted. Today we routinely see goalies reflexively avoiding the puck if it’s bouncing near the edge of the trapezoid – because it’s part of their job to do so. They’re professional athletes. They can handle it.
The best goalies, the ones who thrive at the highest level of play, have become expert at waiting until the puck was just at the line before touching it. The worst, those who don’t belong in the league, will simply avoid it altogether – and eventually be replaced by someone more skilled.
The same part of the human brain that controls these reflexive actions is also in control of the decision whether to check from behind. If a player can slow his glide to the net in order to arrive at the crease three-tenths of a second behind the puck, then he has the ability to pull up on a hit from behind, rather than following through with a forearm to the back of the head.
Is it possible to affect management behavior?
In the 1992 season, the last before Gary Bettman and the instigator rule combined to eliminate the “goon” from the NHL, there were 8 players who broke the 300-PIM barrier. Those 8 players combined for 40 goals (an average of only 5 per goon), a sure sign that they were contributing little more than pure violence to the league.
In the past 5 seasons combined, only one player has broken 300 PIM – Daniel Carcillo finished last season an astonishing 98 PIM ahead of runner-up Jared Boll. Carcillo scored 13 goals, nearly triple the rate that one would have expected from a goon 15 years ago. Regardless of how we might perceive the instigator penalty, it had one clear and unquestionable effect: it made the traditional goon obsolete, and replaced him with a less violent, more skilled enforcer in the mold of Georges Laraque.
But that revolutionary change in the game involved more than just players and referees; general managers were the true agents of change. Some chose to retain goons, mostly for sentimental reasons (Rob Ray managed to hang on in Buffalo for a whole decade of the Bettman Era). But the majority of GMs quickly figured out that high-PIM/low-scoring players were a drag on the team, and within 5 years only a handful of old-school goons could find work in the NHL.
We’re seeing a similar, more subtle filtering of talent today as the new obstruction rules have become a fixture. Hulking blueliners like Derian Hatcher and Dan McGillis, who thrived in a clutch-and-grab environment, are being replaced with smaller, more versatile defensemen. Ultimately it’s the coaches and GMs, not referees or league officials, who make the decision to change the way the game is played… because it’s the coaches and GMs who award roster spots.
So any solution to the cheap-shot problem must take into account that it’s managers who institute real change … not players, not referees. Currently, the league’s disciplinary policy punishes GMs with minor headaches when a player is suspended for dangerous play – a small fine, a player unavailable for most of a week, perhaps an embarrassed press conference. There is a fundamental need for suspensions to strongly affect a GM by significantly damaging his team’s chance at success during the duration of the penalty.
Finding the right formula for change
So, here is what I recommend:
1) Starting immediately, the NHL should establish a system of automatic, progressive suspensions for major penalties. This should apply specifically to boarding, elbowing and charging penalties – those most likely to cause life-threatening injury. In order to provide a “benefit of the doubt” for irregular offenders, the first offense should carry only a one-game suspension. For each subsequent violation, there should be a five-game, ten-game, fifteen-game, thirty-game, and finally a one-season penalty.
2) In order to deter GMs from signing players with a proclivity toward cheapshots, the suspended player should count toward the roster total during the duration of the suspension as long as he is listed as an active player. GMs can avoid this penalty by assigning the player to the minors or putting him on IR, but during that time he is considered inactive and the countdown stops. If it’s not worth the roster penalty to get a player back in the lineup promptly, that player is obsolete and could always find work in Europe. The balance of the suspension would expire one calendar year from the date of the offense, to appease the NHLPA and provide some opportunity for reform.
3) The commissioner’s office must retain strong oversight over the process and have an active role in deciding when to alter the automatic penalties according to circumstance. Clearly, a serious incident would require more than a one-game suspension even if it was a first offense. The automatic-penalty system should not be a means for the league to wash its hands of responsibility.
This system would guarantee that boarding, and the players who make a habit of it, would become obsolete within a single season. It would ensure that ticketholders would get their money’s worth by keeping skilled players healthy and eliminating talentless thugs. It would increase the sense of accountability among GMs and coaches, and eventually lead to a culture of self-policing. And to a certain extent it would further open up the game along the boards by allowing puck carriers an extra split-second to operate in a vulnerable position before being checked.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that this system had been in place for Chris Pronger’s entire career. For the sake of argument, I’ll pretend that it applies to stick fouls as well as boarding and charging penalties. Take a look at the difference it would have made:
Incident: Slashes Pat Peake in the throat.
Actual Penalty: Four games
Hypothetical Penalty: One game, with possible supplement
Incident: Slashes Jeremy Roenick on the helmet
Actual Penalty: Four games
Hypothetical Penalty: Five games
Incident: Cross-checks Brenden Morrow
Actual Penalty: Two games
Hypothetical Penalty: Ten games. At this point one would expect him to stop.
Incident: Boarding/elbowing on Tomas Holmstrom
Actual Penalty: One playoff game
Hypothetical Penalty: 15 games… but even Pronger’s not dumb enough to do this knowing he would receive a 15-game suspension during the playoffs.
Incident: Elbow to the head of Dean McAmmond
Actual Penalty: One Finals game
Hypothetical Penalty: He’d still be suspended from the previous incident.
Incident: Skate stomp on Ryan Kesler
Actual Penalty: Eight games
Hypothetical Penalty: Considering he was suspended almost the entire playoffs, one would hope he wouldn’t be this stupid. See what I’m getting at?
For what it’s worth, under this system Ryan Hollweg would still have 4 games left to serve on his 10-game suspension from the October 13th incident… if the Leafs bothered to keep him on the roster, that is. As it stands he’s played six games since then, logging all of one assist and a -3.
Meanwhile, Mike Van Ryn has six weeks to go on IR.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
With last night's win over Buffalo, the Bruins are (at least temporarily) the banner team in the Northeast Division -- a tough feat, considering the division includes 3 of the Eastern Conference's top 4 teams. While it's still far too early to talk about being in first place in April, the division lead is a testament to the team's resilience in the face of a tough early schedule... and a sign that they are a force to be reckoned with as they play a favorable schedule in November.
What's behind the sudden success (6 wins in 7 games) of a team that many pundits predicted would miss the playoffs? It boils down to a few key factors tilting in Boston's favor:
Hot Goaltending - This is the #1 factor in the Bruins' current streak. In the past 7 games, Tim Thomas has allowed only 5 goals on 168 shots, and Manny Fernandez has won both of his starts by stopping 60 of 65. More importantly, both goaltenders have played their best at key moments, allowing only 4 third-period goals during the streak.
Breakout Games - Milan Lucic had scored only one goal entering the Oct 25th matchup against the Thrashers, when he broke out with a hat trick. Blake Wheeler doubled his scoring total with a hat trick against Toronto on Nov 6th. Marco Sturm scored twice against Dallas after scoring only once in 11 previous games. Last night, Chuck Kobasew tallied a goal and an assist after missing a month with injury. Though Savard is the only player consistently producing at a point-per-game level, it seems that each night brings a new breakout game from a different player.
Depth Players - One of the best-kept secrets in the Eastern Conference is the outstanding play of Boston's 4th line. Shawn Thornton, Stephane Yelle, and a revolving right wing (at times filled by Sobotka, Nokelainen, and Kobasew) consistently dominate their ice time with hard-nosed cycling in the corners. They only pot the occasional goal, but more importantly they sap the ability of opponents' top players to take advantage of their matchups -- an especially important advantage on the road.
Blueline Scoring - In the first 8 games of the season, Boston defensemen accounted for only 1 goal. Since then, they have scored 5. This hardly makes them a threatening bunch of goal scorers, but it's enough to create some extra room for Boston's forwards. Still, one goal from Zdeno Chara (a fluky, bouncing shot that surprised Toskala) is not enough -- look for defensemen scoring to increase as the season goes on.
Friday, November 7, 2008
- Of course, the big story of the night was Blake Wheeler. Wearing new digits (#26, instead of the #42) he pumped in 3 goals to double his season total and tie Mikhail Grabovski for the rookie lead. Oddly, Grabovski scored one of his own to keep pace.
- The Leafs did not look as strong as I expected. In the first 40 minutes the Bruins thoroughly dominated the pace of the game, and only let up in the third period with a 3-0 lead. Apparently this has been happening quite often to the Leafs who have built a reputation for furious comebacks against teams who start to relax with a large lead. It's a credit to Ron Wilson that they are hanging in till the last minute.
- Tim Thomas delivered another virtuoso performance, stopping all but two of 36 shots. The goals scored were both on strange miscues in front of the net. Astoundingly, this represented a below-average night statistically for the league's biggest All-Star snub.
- Chara finally found the net on a weird bouncing slapshot. That makes 1 goal in 31 shots over 13 games. Hopefully he'll be the next in a line of Bruins who are breaking out of brutal slumps.
- I want to take a moment to plug Michael Ryder, who is not getting his due on the stat sheet and will probably be a target of "overpaid players" commentary before too long. Ryder can't score to save his life, but he's doing the little things to make his team better. Last night he threw several well-timed hits on the forecheck that gave the Bruins extra offensive chances.
- Entering the game, the Boston defensemen combined for 16 points on the season. They combined for 2 goals and 3 assists last night, including 2 points each from Wideman and Ference.
- The Bruins continue to struggle on faceoffs, a lurking problem which could become a game-changer in tough contests.
The Big Bad Bruins
The Bruins Report
The Bear Cave
Cornelius Hardenbergh and the Hockey Blog Adventure
Ghosts of the Garden
New England Hockey Journal
Pension Plan Puppets
Maple Leafs Hot Stove
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
The Bruins take on the Maple Leafs tomorrow night, ending a 4-day break. Here are a few plotlines to follow:
Statement Game: The two teams are basically neck-and-neck in the conference and divisional races; a Leafs win would vault them past Boston into an unexpected 2nd place. Two weeks ago, Toronto surprised the Bruins by playing a pretty solid game and scoring 4 straight goals. The secret is out -- they might not be a dynasty in the making, but the Leafs regularly exceed expectations and are not a doormat. In this game there will be no surprises, so it will basically be a benchmark to see whether Toronto is for real.
Rest or Rust?: The Bruins began their season with a frantic schedule including two long road trips, so the Powers-That-Be rewarded them with a few days off after Saturday's victory over Dallas. Under normal circumstances I'd be worried that they'd come out and stink up the Gahden for at least 20 minutes, but that might not be the case this time around. The team was supercharged after the emotional, fight-filled win over Dallas and has had 4 days to let that energy stew. I would not want to be the Leafs in this situation.
Playing to Their Strengths: The Leafs are solid on offense (12th) but one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL (27th). The Bruins are pretty much the opposite (25th and 12th, respectively). That's pretty much all you need to know about how they'll approach this game. Daring prediction: the Leafs will try to score a lot.
Manny?: No word yet on starting goalies, but this is the sort of game you'd expect Julien to hand over to Manny Fernandez. Tim Thomas has been smoking hot of late, but Manny needs reps if he's going to actually compete for the #1 position... though that ship appears to have sailed already. [update: Boston.com predicts that Thomas will start his fifth straight game tonight. This pretty much puts a fork in the notion that he and Fernandez will be a platoon -- hope that bench seat's comfy, Manny.]
Clean Bill of Health: Chuck Kobasew is expected to return to the Bruins lineup after nearly a month, which makes the Bruins officially a healthy team with nobody on IR (of course there are always murmurs about unreported injuries, particularly about Chara's health). Likewise, the Leafs have no injuries at present. [update: Looks like I spoke too soon on this one. Kobasew will not play until at least Saturday, and the Bruins will be missing the services of Shane Hnidy with the mysterious "lower body injury". Mark Stuart is day-to-day with the flu; no word as to whether he skates tonight.]
Hunwick In, Sobotka Out: Fan favorite Vladimir Sobotka was sent back to Providence, presumably to make room for Kobasew's return. Word on the street is that Shane Hnidy will sit out the game after giving his fists a nice workout on Saturday, and will be replaced by rookie Matt Hunwick. Hunwick played a solid game against the Habs in his only other appearance, so it will be interesting to see what he does with this opportunity.
Shootouts: Combined, the teams are 1-6 in the skills contest. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.
Bitter Leaf Fan
Down Goes Brown
Battle of Ontario
The Wonderful World of Loser Domi
Pension Plan Puppets
And just for kicks, the best Youtube vid you'll see today:
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Ah, Dallas. Longtime home to some of professional sports' biggest douchebags: Michael Irvin, Ed Belfour, George W. Bush. A city that has shamelessly associated itself with both Terrell Owens and Sean Avery this autumn.
So perhaps we should not be shocked to see both the Stars and Cowboys imploding before we've even finished off the crappy hard candy that old folks give out on Halloween. Verily, the prideful shall be smited.
As they say, everything's bigger in Texas. Hats are bigger. Breast implants are bigger. And pro-sports meltdowns are a LOT bigger.
Case in point: the Dallas Stars are on the verge of a trainwreck not seen since the Great Senators Implosion of Aught-Seven. We knew something was awry when the Stars, fresh off a semi-finals appearance and stocked with new talent, muddled through a 1-5-1 preseason. Serious injuries to Sergei Zubov and Jere Lehtinen added a little fuel to that suspicion. But our spider-sense really started tingling when they dropped decisions to the likes of Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis and Colorado in the first 8 days of the regular season.
Until this week, it seemed that the Stars might be suffering from some early-season hiccups, the sort of thing that works itself out after a few tough bonding experiences on the road. Boy, were we ever wrong.
After getting steamrolled in Chicago, Avery & Co. arrived in Boston Saturday evening with all the composure of Bob Probert after a long night Vegas. Throughout the game, hardly 10 minutes of play would pass in between pugilistic sideshows, most of which precipitated from dangerous hits by Avery and henchman Steve Ott. What began as a decent contest quickly became a rout, as the Bruins reponded first physically and then with a 3-goal outburst in the final period as the Stars simply fell apart in all areas of the game.
All that is bad enough for Dallas fans, but it's what came next that really stings. First, franchise player and assistant captain Mike Modano on the team's style of play:
Tonight, it was idiotic and stupid. It was one of the most embarrassing things I've
seen. If that's what we're going for, then they need to find me an office job.
It was dumb penalties, dumb situations, that's kind of been the trend all season. There's no mental toughness. We're allowing the refs to get involved in the game with and spending more energy on them than the details of winning the game.
Then, goalie Marty Turco offers this evaluation, moments after ripping his teammates for poor defensive play (and naming names in the process, always a popular move from a guy who is near the bottom of the league in every measure of his game):
You come into a tough game and a tough building, after a night like last night, think it's all going to come out of us, get some guys out of our shell, total opposite. It's sad, it's embarrassing. There's no sugarcoating anything anymore. We're in a rut that I haven't seen in a long time. It' going to not just be a couple days that are going to get us through it.
Naturally, GM Brett Hull chips in:
I've lost my patience. These players either need to kick themselves in the ass, or they need someone else to do it for them, but it's going to happen.
Finally, coach Dave Tippett gives us a little preview of things to come:
This week, with the long break, there’s going to be lots of evaluation going on. You can take that however you want.
These are not the words of a team that is prepared to bounce back from a sub-.500 start. They are not the words of a team prepared to go into both Anaheim and San Jose for grudge-match divisional games later this week. And they certainly aren't what you expect to hear from a team that will finish the season without a major shakeup.
Put 'em in your death pool, folks; things are about to get ugly in Dallas. Teams stocked with douchebags like Avery, Ribeiro and Modano (and for that matter, managed by Brett Hull) will only stand for so much strain in the locker room. The only question is whether this team will make it to the New Year before the bottom falls out and Avery starts granting interviews while doing sit-ups in his driveway. In any case, it's now a matter of damage control as the Stars have clearly lost their sense of chemistry and frankly don't seem to like each other on a personal level. This isn't just a recipe for a bad season, it's a blueprint for becoming a long-term "rebuilding" project almost overnight.
And it couldn't happen to a better bunch of guys.