The Art of Dodging Bullets
There are times in the course of watching a hockey game when your stomach can turn and twist into any number of shapes and knots. This can happen for any number of reasons, and it can sometimes even be one of the elements that attracts us to the game. I had a prolonged stretch of stomach-twisting during a game last week. It all turned out well for the good guys, but it was difficult to watch nonetheless.
Last Thursday night, I was sitting in the press box at RBC Center watching the Capitals and the Hurricanes go at it. Early in the second period, the Caps held a slim 1-0 lead, but the Hurricanes were beginning to apply some serious offensive pressure. After the Caps outshot the Canes by a 17-11 margin in the first period, Carolina had come out with a lot of energy in the middle period and was buzzing the Washington net with purpose, right around the two-minute mark of the frame.
Carolina had forwards Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, Chad LaRose and defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Anton Babchuk on the ice at the time. The Caps had forwards Matt Bradley, Ben Clymer and Kris Beech and defensemen Jamie Heward and Jeff Schultz on the ice. All 10 players had come out on the fly (Clymer, Heward and Schultz came out just a few seconds ahead of Beech and Bradley), and the Canes immediately took the puck into the Washington end of the ice.
For the next minute or so, the Canes cycled, rotated, passed and generally played keep-away from the five Capitals skaters. Finally, at the 3:06 mark, the Caps managed to ice the puck. Since the start of the 2005-06 season, this tactic provides only very short-term relief (unless a planned TV timeout happens to conicide with the stoppage), since the offending team (Washington, in this case) is no longer permitted to change players after icing the puck. Tired troops must remain on the sheet while the opposition is able to put out fresh bodies for what is an offensive zone draw for them.
Before the Caps iced the puck, the Canes were actually able to get both Seidenberg and Babchuk to the bench, replacing them with David Tanabe and Mike Commodore. When the two teams lined up for the face-off after the icing whistle, the five Caps had been on the ice for more nearly a minute. (Ideal NHL shifts range from 35-50 seconds, depending on the player, the player’s position and the coach’s preferences.) The same five tired Caps had to remain on the ice, while Carolina was able to counter with forwards Andrew Ladd, Trevor Letowski and Craig Adams — all of whom were taking their first shift of the second period. Carolina coach Peter Laviolette put defensemen Babchuk and Glen Wesley out with that trio of forwards.
Bradley won the face-off from Letowski, but the Canes quickly regained possession of the puck before the Caps could clear the zone without icing the disc, and get fresh personnel on the ice. Washington’s already tired charges were again pinned in their own zone, and Carolina was again buzzing and firing pucks in the direction of Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig. The Caps looked desperate.
Almost a minute after he took the draw, Bradley and his mates were still pinned in. Bradley managed to get high enough in the zone to get off for a change (changing on the fly is more difficult in the second period when the benches are farther away from the defensive zone); Alex Ovechkin replaced him after Bradley had been out for more than a minute and a half. Clymer was the next one to get off. Chris Clark spelled him after a shift that ran 2:15. Beech was on the ice for 2:23 before Dainius Zubrus replaced him.
It was nearly three minutes (!) before the two Washington defensemen were finally able to get to the bench for a change. Heward and Schultz both skated 2:50 on the shift in question. For the entire evening, Heward logged 17:32 and Schultz 18:49, so that one shift accounted for a great deal of their ice time for the night. (It should be noted that those ice time totals were inflated a bit by Brian Pothier’s unavailability for the third period. Pothier, the Caps’ leading skater in terms of average ice time per game, was lost to an upper body injury late in the second period.)
As I watched this drama unfolding before me, I squirmed in my chair, felt my innards doing contortions and flips, and silently urged the Caps to somehow get a whistle or a change without icing the puck. They did, but not before Kolzig was forced to make five saves. Bradley and Heward blocked a shot each, and another missed its mark. Carolina fired eight shots in a span of about three minutes, and the Caps had dodged a bullet to protect a 1-0 lead at a stage when the game was clearly still very much up for grabs.
To the untrained observer, those sorts of situations can look like a jailbreak. But, as Matt Bradley later elucidated for me, there is actually a great deal of method to what may look like pure madness:
“Coaches tell us when you’re tried like that on the penalty kill or in a 5-on-5 situation like we were there,” the Caps winger began, “just to keep it simple and close into a tighter box. Everybody moves closer to the middle of the ice, because when you have no energy you can’t be chasing guys [into the corners]. You have to have really good position. They had a couple chances but I think we kept them to the outside. We were were obviously tired, but there is no excuse for not playing good positional hockey.”
Kudos to Kolzig and his five teammates for keeping that game scoreless for three hectic minutes, and eventually salting away a much needed victory. Anyone else wonder why Laviolette didn’t send out the Rod Brind’Amour or the Eric Staal line after the icing call? I know I did. Both lines were fresh, but he opted to keep rolling his four units. These are but some of the little nuances and elements that go into making up the outcome of a 60-minute (and sometimes longer) contest.