By: Luke Johns
Hockey is a tricky game to fully understand what goes on when considering all the little details. In hockey, strategy is underrated, action happens away from the puck and it’s the one sport where statistics aren’t the end-all-be-all for evaluating a players’ importance to a team. To help the casual fan see through the box score, here are six things to look for during a game when you don’t have your eye on the puck carrier. Why six? Six players on the ice including a goalie, the NHL’s original six and my Bruins have even won six Stanley Cups. So as it turns out six is a significant number in the hockey world. So without further adieu, here are six elements of the game for hockey fans to take in when watching a game.
1. How the home coach uses last change.
In the NHL (and most amateur leagues for that matter), the home head coach has an advantage called “last change” which means when changing between whistles, he gets to see which players the road team has on the ice and then make a decision about who he wants to put on the ice to counter. Matchups on the ice is a huge part of a game and theoretically the home coach has the advantage to the point where, for example, he can see the top line taking the ice for a shift and can counter by sending out his best defensemen. A lot of strategy goes into what matchups the head coach wants and the excitement for a fan is to pay attention to get a sense for what a coach is thinking in certain situations.
2. What happens within ten seconds after a faceoff.
There’s an analytic that tracks players’ production that occurs within ten seconds after a faceoff in any area of the ice. For better or for worse, it can tell you two things: one if a teams faceoff success or lack thereof is their reason for winning or losing, and can be an evaluator for where a player excels in certain situations. For example, if large portions of a player’s goals come less than ten seconds after a faceoff, the coach is going to send his line out for offensive zone faceoffs as much as possible.
Additionally within the first ten seconds after a faceoff sets the tone for what will happen next. If an offensive zone faceoff is won cleanly the team has more time to set up in the offensive zone. If a defensive faceoff is won cleanly then the team has a better opportunity to break out of the zone. The first ten seconds after a faceoff may not be highlight worthy, but they sometimes pave the way to allow the big play to happen.
3. A team’s zone entry scheme.
Defensemen in the NHL are too good to allow a team to haphazardly enter the offensive zone. So you’ll notice that more often than not teams have a structured scheme to attempt to enter their opponent’s zone with the puck. Those can include multiple passes in the neutral zone to spread the defense out, “D-to-D” where the defensemen will pass the puck to each other to tilt the ice, and even can occur from generating odd-man rushes.
This is even more evident when a team is on the power play and will have to retrieve the puck from the own zone and bring it back from time to time.
When you see a team repeatedly attempting stretch pass after stretch pass, it shows laziness and eventually their opponent will catch on. 99% of goals are scored from the offensive zone, and the way to get there is obviously to successfully enter it.
4. Where players are going when they don’t have the puck.
Wayne Gretzky once said, “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” Pick any star player and I guarantee you when they don’t have the puck they’re keeping their feet moving and constantly surveying open ice to go and get open or projecting where the puck is about to be to go get it. Watching superstar players when they don’t have the puck gives viewers an appreciation of their thought process on the ice as to where they go to put themselves in a position to make a play.
5. The goalie’s positioning.
The two basic goaltending styles are stand-up and butterfly, and the two basic tendencies include a goalie playing far out in his crease or further back in the net. There are advantages and disadvantages to both styles and tendencies but whichever specific one a goalie prefers defines him and is noticed my opponents. For example, Henrik Lundqvist is known for playing far back in his crease. While he allows shooters to recognize holes that otherwise wouldn’t be there, playing far back gives him a split second of extra time to react to where the shooter is shooting the puck. Some may argue that the benefits don’t outweigh the costs but that style of play has won him a Vezina Trophy so if it works for him then who am I to argue.
6. How a team reacts to a dirty hit.
In the NHL, the players police themselves and carry the “eye for an eye” philosophy with them while doing said policing. And whenever a team’s star player is victim to a dirty hit, you can bet that his teammates will seek retribution one way or another, usually being a fight. That’s why the NHL can’t ban fighting because if a player knows he can take a cheap shot at anyone and get away with it by not having to answer the bell in a fight, dirty hits and injuries will go through the roof. Unfortunately the NHL took a step toward that direction implementing the instigator penalty for whoever instigates a fight. Nonetheless whenever a star player is victim of a gruesome hit, watch how that changes the tempo of the game and can sometimes start feuds between the teams that lasts years.
(Featured Image: Fabien, Flickr)