I just have to get this out while I’m thinking about it:
MY GOD, THIS IS A FUN TEAM TO WATCH.
Even when they lost to Nashville, it was an interesting game. Grump-inducing at times, but still fun to watch. That is never a bad thing.
And last night?
Well, if the Mike Keenan death watch wasn’t operating before, it is now. Iron Mike always has a short “use by” date on his lapel at the best of times and Calgary doesn’t look to be different.
The reality is, though, that because Calgary tends to put on a bit of a show in the playoffs, we tend to think they’re better than they really are. This is a team that always seems to BARELY make the playoffs, fights hard in the first round, and loses. Memorable, but that’s not a dominant team by any means.
And this year? As Laurie nicely put it last night, they aren’t getting better, they’re getting older. It’s the Kiprusoff, Phaneuff and Iginla show, featuring a cast of dozens. Replacing Owen Nolan with Todd Bertuzzi is, well, not an upgrade. And the rest of the team pretty much seems to be guys who never quite met their potential somewhere else and ended up here.
Last night, they came up against one of the top teams in the league, and it wasn’t really close. How dominant were the Sharks?
Jody Shelley — on the power play.
Jody Shelley played almost 11 minutes last night. He was getting regular shifts on the power play in the third, between Marleau and Thornton, while Brad Staubitz played between Michalek and Pavelski. A bit of that was the loss of Mike Grier in the first to an injury (unspecified, rumor has it he’s pregnant. hey, if the team won’t tell us, let’s just make up weird stuff and make fun of them). It was also partly giving the fourth line some “have fun” time to recognize the hard work they do. And nobody could remotely accuse the Sharks of trying to pile on the poor flames (which is still “against the code”, whatever that means, even though 3 and four goal leads are far from safe this season)
But it’s also an indication of what the Sharks think of a Sutter/Keenan team; a typical keenan team gets behind — and starts trying to beat people up. “Sending a message”, whatever that means, as if that somehow minimizes the fact that in the first period I thought the Flames missed their flight and the Sharks subbed in the San Jose State club team until the real players got there. No, wait, that is Iginla skating…
So the Sharks put out their policemen, and the Flames took notice and didn’t get stupid. Whether Keenan saw that as a good or bad thing, I dunno. I can guess, and “good” probably isn’t it; the Flames looked pretty “oh, let’s get on the damn plane and get out of here”.
In many ways, the game was the poster child for a big (positive) change going on in the NHL: the Sharks are at the forefront of this new “high talent, high speed, run and gun” NHL, while the Flames are still playing more of a gritty, “old school” game. They’re not a fast team, they’re not a big offense team, and in today’s NHL, they’re once again struggling to be playoff team. (quick quiz: compare the flames record under Jim Playfair, and then under Mike Keenan. Then ask yourself why Playfair was canned and whether Sutter really improved the team by bringing in Iron Mike. Then start wondering just how much longer Keenan will be coaching that team…)
(for the lazy ones out there, Playfair: 96 points, 3rd in division, first round out. Keenan, 94 points, 3rd in division, first round out. This year, on pace for… 86 points, third in conference, and….)
Even the media is recognizing that the NHL has changed and it’s increasingly fun to watch:
If you think youâ€™ve seen an unusually high number of late-game comebacks already in this NHL season, this morningâ€™s Tennessean validates your hunch:
A nice piece by John Glennon that also attempts to identify potential causes for this wild & wacky action.
Why? One reason is the change in faceoff location after a penalty. It’s a small thing, but it really helps offense generation.
Another? There were some seemingly minor changes to the goaltending gear this off-season, mostly in removal of a little padding here and there. Nothing drastic enough for most media types to pay attention to (it’s more fun to write articles bitching at the league about changing the size of the goal), but the changes are actually non-trivial — because goalies no longer can flop down and depend on the pads to completely block the five hole. It changes both the dynamics of the goaltending AND the mental aspects, because there are now places were pucks can squeeze through, so goalies have to protect the five hole, not just get into the butterfly.
Another? teams are figuring out how to take advantage of the rules and the changes since the lockout. Last year, you really saw team defense switch into “everyone blocks shots” mode, where something like 50% of shots attempted get stopped by players before it reaches the goalie. This year, teams have adapted to the “drop, sprawl and pray for your face” mode of defense by making the defense more mobile. If someone tries to go down to block a shot, teams are actively moving around them and turning them into boulders. That negates some of the strengths of the shotblocking defense, forcing them to stay on their feet more or causing them to fall out of the play and allowing for odd man attacks.
Also, instead of getting the puck down low and trying to go cross-crease to get the goalie moving (and hopefully open up a hole), teams have shifted to taking the puck to the D, letting the D find a lane and blast it, and simply crash for rebounds. That causes the defense to spread out, limiting the “collapse to the crease and let’s all stack up like firewood around our goalie” defense.
This is to some degree the end of the adaptions that have started since the red line came out. That change gave teams the ability to break the trap (if they’re good, and fast); now teams are figuring out how to break the crease clogging. Combine that with more offensive zone faceoffs and a small change that keeps goalies from feeling invincible and puts more of an onus on them STOPPING pucks instead of being hit by them, and suddenly, you see….
Well, you see some pretty interesting hockey. And yes, scoring is up, which is rarely bad — something like 3/4 of a goal a game or so. But what makes for interesting hockey isn’t JUST scoring, it’s offensive chances, and those are way up this year. Up and down action, lead changes, scoring chances, goals. Pick two, and you probably have fun hockey.