Off Topic – NHL Playoffs

Maybe not off topic if we met on a regular basis – I am a huge hockey fan, player, and coach.

It’s been a hell of an adjustment period for all professional sports during the pandemic, and the NHL had been relatively successful with their approach. This concatenated season, with different divisions, has made for a really interesting regular season. Normally I would only see the Oilers twice a year, but I watched nearly a dozen games this year due to the schedule. Digress aside, the playoffs are abound, and few sports are anywhere close to the NHL in terms of show. (The NBA should be able to compete, but the fundamentals in that league prevent team parity.)

I am a Montreal Canadiens fan. Go Habs Go! I’m old enough, and bilingual, that the option really wasn’t present to be a Leafs fan (who we are raised to hate). It’s been a bumpy ride for most of those years, the continual underdogs and what not. The late 90s, early 00’s were just crushing with one of the worst managers in all sports (aside perhaps Millbury). It’s a tough market, as the Habs have a fervent following, practically a religion, with very high expectations. Everyone has something to say, and when I’m in Montreal, it’s easy to strike up a conversation with anyone about the team.

This year started off very strong, then the coach lost the confidence of the room. A new coach was put in, and it’s been a rough ride since. On paper, there’s depth without a clear set of superstars like Crosby or McDavid. In practice, there’s a half dozen players who show up consistently, and are effectively the heart of the team.

Tangent Time!

I have a passing interest in most sports, I’ve played nearly all of them at some point. I don’t have the experience necessary to understand the particulars as they happen but can make the links afterwards. Watching someone like Romo accurately predict outcomes based on defensive line ups (NFL) is fascinating. It’s explained because, you know, that was his actual job as a quarterback to be able to digest quickly and react. There are plenty of other QBs that have provided color commentary, but few with the level of quality/detail as Romo.

Given my lack of experience in the sport, I’m not quick enough to see all the intricacies, especially in highly active sports (basketball, tennis, soccer, etc..) There are so few pauses in the game, it’s so reactive, that anticipation and instincts dominate for successful athletes.

I do not have this challenge with hockey. I may be amazed by a new play, or some crazy good luck bounce, but a solid 80% of the time the play works out exactly like I anticipate it to.

Back to the game!

In the playoffs though, against the Leafs no less, the team just isn’t present. I’ve been watching the games and I’m continually confused as to what system is being applied. I know how a 1-3-1 umbrella attack should work, but what I’m seeing is not at all close to it. I’d be understanding if these were kids, but these are professionals making millions… so something here isn’t lining up.

As with all systems, they are based on foundational concepts, then have variations in design based on other factors. Some teams play a box, some a diamond. Some go for a F1/F2 system. Some teams have tried a slingshot to break through a trap-focused team. These systems work with any NHL player. The modifications come when you consider line chemistry and skill sets. If you have someone who’s great at stickhandling, you have more options in a corner exit. Two right-handed defence mean you can only attack from one side. A goalie with poor stick control will have the puck thrown on their backhand.

All that to go back to the game and watching a team incapable of making 2 consecutive passes, of missing clear opportunities that should rarely be missed. The worst part is that I know they are good players, because their instincts of where players should be are correct, it’s the system that is applied is making sure the players are not there. If you don’t have stickhandlers, then you need to run a cycle offence. Montreal has 2 stickhandlers and never cycles.

To top it off, the systems played are high risk systems, meaning that if the puck possession changes, the other team has a dramatic advantage in a counter attack. Like if in the NFL every pass was for 20+yrds. You’re going to get intercepted. And sure enough, the Leafs are provided crazy opportunities in this regard.

The end results appears to be like watching a bunch of men play teens, with a near complete domination in all aspects of the game (‘cept in nets, Price is nearly without flaw). It’s so crazy frustrating to watch that I’ve had to change my expectations as that of a learning opportunity. Each of these skaters is learning (or re-learning) the lessons that unity and passion are what’s required to win at high levels. It’s some silver lining to see the really young skaters take some chances and build their confidence. They are making mistakes, no question, but they are not making them multiple times.

All that said, I do have to say that the Leafs are playing their systems to great effect. Their defence isn’t all that good, but their offence is stunning to watch. When someone like Jason Spezza (37 years!) is continually pick pocketing players who are nearly 20 years younger, that says something about passion to play. I still feel dirty cheering on the Leafs, but I can recognize a solid hockey team when I see one.

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