Monday April 20th, 2015

Off The Draw

While the Senators were mauling the Canadiens early in a game that eventually went Montreal’s way on Sunday night, there was a fascinating debate online about the value of hitting.

The #fancystat crowd was resolute in its conviction that physicality is a failed battle plan. The theory in a nutshell: Hits are not a stat that should be glorified because they indicate possession by the opposing team. In other words, you can’t rack ’em up unless you’re chasing the puck. And as every stat geek will tell you, possession is everything.

NHL
Who advanced analytics (fancystats) predict will win the 2015 Stanley Cup

In a vacuum, or a game played on paper, that makes perfect sense.

The alternate view suggests that, taken in context, the value of doling out punishment is clear. No team can possess the puck all the time, so how you play when you don’t have it can be critical to the outcome of a series. Hits, after all, aren’t always an indication of a game that is being chased any more than they are about a Neanderthal-like desire to negate skill with brute force.

The goal of hitting is to make life miserable for the other team. To make it rush decisions out of fear of being plastered into the end boards over and over again.

If you can get a player to rush (or hesitate), he’s going to make mistakes. Those mistakes can lead to turnovers. And turnovers ... ta-da! ... cause changes of possession.

That’s especially true in the close-quarters combat of the postseason. Deliver hits consistently and you will start to see the cumulative effects of that punishment as a series wears on.

The stats crowd may have ended up with the last laugh when Dale Weise won Sunday’s game for the Habs in overtime, but Ottawa didn’t come up short because it had spent the first period in demolition derby mode. The Senators lost because they couldn’t dish out punishment for 60 minutes. Montreal struggled in the first period because it was hearing footsteps. When Ottawa’s commitment to finishing its checks lagged, the Canadiens started to dictate the tone and pace of the game.

But even in defeat, the template for a Senators victory was revealed—if they are going to extend the series, they need to focus on a more consistent physical game. Possession will follow.

NHL
The 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs

• Speaking of the value of hits, there is no overstating the importance of Michael Ferkland, er, Ferland, in the Flames’ 4–2 win over the Canucks on Sunday night. The rookie winger, whose name was famously mangled by Kevin Bieksa, played his role as agitator to near-perfection in Game 3, landing nine hits—including a massive shot on Vancouver defenseman Luca Sbisa—and generally driving the Canucks to distraction. It was clear as the contest progressed that some of the visitors were more concerned with payback than with getting back in the game, and that worked out just fine for Calgary.

The key for a player like Ferland is to stay out of the penalty box. Since taking a retaliation call in Game 1, he’s walked the fine line to perfection.

• Speaking of name mangling, pity poor Rafael Diaz. This will follow him the rest of his life.

• There’s a widespread belief that Evgeni Malkin’s ineffective play through the first two games of the PenguinsRangers series can be attributed to a lingering lower-body injury. That’s probably true to an extent, but the bigger drag on his impact might be a pair of wingers who aren’t taking advantage of the fact that they are playing alongside one of the best centers in the world.

It’s hard to knock Daniel Winnik. He’s a bottom-six grinder who was forced into a role on Malkin’s line because of Pittsburgh’s depth issues. But David Perron has the tools. He’s just not doing anything with them.

Perron has been a massive disappointment since he came over from the Oilers in a January trade. He’s scored only two goals in the last five weeks and has done little to suggest that he’s close to breaking out of his slump. What’s most troubling about his performance is that he’s no longer even getting the chances that he was muffing early in his skid. Instead of relying on his one-timer, which was so dangerous early in his tenure with the team, he is trying to get cute with his scoring chances. The extra time he’s taking to shoot is allowing goalies to get set, and his shots have either been missing the mark or hitting goalies in the middle chest.

The Pens need someone to step up tonight and Perron is certainly capable, especially because he’s skating with Malkin. But for Perron to break out he needs to turn off his brain and let his hockey instincts take over.

The numbers game

• Dale Weise is now the third player in Montreal history to post a multigoal postseason game in which he was credited with every score in an overtime win. The others: Jacques Lemaire in a 2–1 victory over the Bruins in Game 4 of the 1977 Stanley Cup finals, and defenseman Eric Desjardins, who had a hat trick in a 3–2 win over the Kings in Game 2 of the ’93 Cup finals.

John Tavares, who led the NHL with four overtime goals during the regular-season, holds the Islanders’ franchise record for regular-season OT goals (8). In a 2–1 win over the Capitals on Sunday, he scored the first postseason OT goal of his NHL career just 15 seconds into the extra frame. It was the sixth-fastest such goal in NHL playoff history. The all-time quickest: the Canadiens’ Brian Skrudland (0:09 in 1986); the Islanders’ J.P. Parise (0:11 in ’75); Vancouver’s Alex Burrows (0:11 in 2011); and the Blackhawks’ Pit Martin (0:12 in 1972) and Martin Havlat (0:12 in 2009).

• With his strike against the Canucks on Sunday, Calgary’s Sam Bennett—at 18 years, 303 days—is now the youngest player in franchise history to score a game-winning postseason goal, and the youngest in NHL history to score a playoff game-winner in regulation. Three younger players have scored postseason OT winners: Boston’s Don Gallinger (17 years, 339 days); the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon (18 years, 237 days); and the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron (18 years, 260 days).


Hot links

• After winning the Connor McDavid lottery, Edmonton would be wise to brush up on its history.

• Mike Milbury as the next coach in Boston? Joe Haggerty ponders that possibility and other Beantown-based concerns in his end-of-season mailbag.

The Jets bring playoff hockey back to Winnipeg tonight. Roy McGregor examines the perfect storm that awaits.

• Does the firing of Craig Berube mean the end of coaching diversity in the NHL?

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