CHICAGO – The best thing about Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final was that it was played at such a frenetic pace that it took control out of the hands of the coaches and placed it firmly in the hands of the players.
And they responded by providing us with one of the most entertaining Stanley Cup final games in years. If the NHL truly wants to grow the game, it should hope that the record six million people who watched on NBC were either hockey neophytes or casual fans.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, don’t count on a 6-5 overtime game happening again. Hockey is arguably the most hyper-coached and overanalyzed game in sports and you can count on Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and Bruins coach Claude Julien will do their best to put the clamps on the game and turn it back into a line-matching chess match.
“You want to forecast going into games,” Quenneville said. “You expect them to play tight.”
Well, there you have it. This comment comes from a coach who has won two games in the Stanley Cup final and lost two. In the games the Blackhawks have won, 18 goals have been scored. In the two they’ve lost, five. Duncan Keith said it seemed “like a track meet out there,” in Game 4 and if that’s what works for you, why not stick with it?
You can’t blame coaches for imposing their will on the game. Their job is to win, not to make the game exciting. And they feel the more they can control what happens on the ice, the better chance they have of being successful. But here’s the thing. When you put enough talented players out on the ice, add in the fact the ice is going to be bad and turn them loose, sometimes great things will happen.
(It also helps to have goaltenders who soil themselves the way Tuukka Rask and Corey Crawford did in Game 4. When asked once what could be done to increase scoring in the NHL, Bob Clarke said the league needed more bad goaltenders. Crawford was particularly shaky, allowing all five goals on the glove side, which prompted him to quip: “Last series they were talking about my blocker. Both sides are bad I guess.”)
But opening the floodgates at this point would probably favor the Blackhawks, who capitalize on having not only speed, but players who can make creative offensive plays at top speed. They have quick feet, but they also move the puck quickly. And the Hawks just went out and played in Game 4. They stopped worrying about Zdeno Chara being on the ice and all the matchup permutations that would entail and just unleashed their best offensive players on the Bruins beast.
Coaches may hate games like Game 4, but fans love watching them and players love playing in them. Players listen to coaches and play systems because they have to, otherwise their hockey pants will get nailed to the bench. But what player, no matter the level, doesn’t want to go out there and just play and allow talent and competitiveness to dictate which team wins? That’s what the Blackhawks seemed to do in Game 4 and if not for their goaltending, that game would have been a rout in their favor.
“I’m just playing the game, I read and react,” said Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. “The whole game for me is instincts and reading the play and making a quick decision. And I don’t think our team is built to sit back and see what happens.”
It’s that kind of game that becomes more entertaining because when players react on instinct, sometimes their instincts are wrong. That leads to mistakes, missed passes, botched plays and turnovers. Those lead to opportunities, which lead to goals. The Blackhawks, you would think, would be willing to live with those mistakes if they led to good things more often. And the Blackhawks had their least success when they worried about their opponent more than themselves. After all, these guys are the Presidents’ Trophy champions. They should be dictating the pace in every game, not reacting to the pace dictated by their opponents.
“Maybe we were getting caught up a little bit too much with their defensemen and their forwards the first couple of games,” said Blackhawks right winger Patrick Kane. “I think we’re better off when we’re just using our speed and playing hockey. Don’t think too much about the game, use your instincts. There are different things you want to do, but I think we’re better off when we just play the game. So we’ll try push the pace and play as fast as we can, the way we did last game. It’s fun to be a part of that, especially when you win.”
So if the Blackhawks feel confident enough to set the pace from the outset, buckle up and get ready for a wild ride for the rest of this series. We can only hope they do that because 2-1 is nice, sometimes, but 6-5 is better, all the time.
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