Thursday, November 10, 2011

Embarrassing-For the Flyers That Is


It's funny how things escalate. Last night's Lightning game against the Flyers started off as a match-up between two high scoring Eastern Conference teams and ended up as a sounding board for all that is right and wrong with hockey. On one side, according to Pierre McGuire and the rest of the Vs. broadcast crew were the Flyers and the forces of good and on the other, Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher and his team full of chicken sh*t non-forechecking players.

Let's get something out in the open right away. The Lightning play a trap.  Sheldon knows it. Luigi knows it. And, of course, Admiral Ackbar knows it. It's known as the "1-3-1" and has been broken down by smarter people than I. If you're not familiar with the intricacies, go here. I'll wait for you to read it, I know it's kind of long.

OK, welcome back. So now that you're caught up with Boucher's system let me tell you how the Flyers decided to combat it. After watching hours of video tape, after facing the same defense four times last year they decided to do nothing. Literally nothing. Defenseman Braydon Couburn stood in his own defensive zone with the puck at his skates and stood there. He stood there for 30 seconds while the fans at the Ice Palace reigned boos down upon him. He stood there, probably thinking about his new 4yr/$18 million contract, until the refs blew the whistle.

Later in the game, after being warned by the refs that the puck had to keep moving, the Flyers kept the puck in their own defensive zone and passed it back and forth a few times, skated in a few circles until the refs blew the whistle. They basically employed the, "we don't know how to beat your defense so we're not going to play" strategy.

The Vs crew (or Vs./NBC/Comcast/Universal/Outdoor Network crew) were outraged. It was an embarrassment to the game. During the intermission, resident blowhard Mike Milbury walked off the set in protest. How dare the Lightning treat the sacred game that way!

Wait, what? The Lightning was to blame? How was that possible? The team with the puck, stood there and did nothing, but the team that was playing their system, the same system that they've played for more than 100 games without a protest, was in the wrong.

After the game, upstanding citizen Chris Pronger stated, "The onus is on them {Lightning}. They have to come and forecheck once in a while, too." He also said, "That was their game right there. We were making them look bad. That's not hockey in my book, but whatever. The league is letting them do it."

Ok, big fella let's take a look at what you said. First of all, nowhere in the rulebook does it say that a team "has" to forecheck. If there is an onus, it's on the team with the puck to bring it up the ice and score goals. As far as making the Lightning "look bad" I think the team that looked bad was the one standing there doing nothing. Finally, the league is letting the Lightning do it, because it's not illegal. That is the salient point here. Nothing is illegal about the Lightning strategy. Not only have they been enforcing it for over a year, some form of the system has been in the league for twenty years. It's not that much different than the system the New Jersey Devils rode to multiple Stanley Cups in the 1990's.

Why would the Flyers resort to such a delay tactic? Surely it's because Boucher's diabolical scheme is so stifling that no one can score against them, right? They must have allowed the fewest goals in the league, right? Let's check. Nope. They are actually 24th out of 30 teams in goals allowed. Justin, you say, the season has just begun, that sample size is too small! OK, let's look at last year where they played the same system for 82 games. How about 22nd in the league! Suffocating, that 1-3-1 is.
McGuire getting ready to say something annoying. Photo from Icon Sports

At some point in the game, the man in the glass for Vs., Pierre McGuire, asked analyst Ed Olczyk if he'd like to play in Boucher's system, or if "star" players would like the system. Olczyk said no way. Of course, why would a star player want to play in a system that generates a ton of turnovers and breakaways? That would be ludicrous.

If you've watched more than one Lightning game during Boucher's tenure you will notice that the Lightning do indeed forecheck. They are actually really good at forechecking, especially the Nate Thompson line. As Boucher stated in his post game conference, "When we have the puck we're aggressive with it, and when we don't have the puck we dedicate ourselves to being above the puck instead of chasing from behind."

In other words, their system adapts to their needs. When they are in the 1-3-1, they're usually up by a goal or tied. The reason they play it is simple. Their defense is weak. Right now it's even weaker with the loss of Victor Hedman and the ongoing health issues with Mattias Ohlund. With two of their top three defensemen out, they need help from their forwards, and that's what his system provides.

Almost exactly a year ago the same two teams met and produced one of the more entertaining games of the year, a 8-7 Lightning win. Guess what defensive system the Lightning played in that game? That's right, the 1-3-1. Granted they didn't play it well, but they still played it.

The uproar over the Flyers tactics will die down in a few days. I doubt many teams will follow their example to the extreme that Philadelphia did. Teams may hold onto it a little longer in their defensive zone, but not for 30 seconds at a time. What they'll do is drop their forwards lower to give their breakout more options, get to the red line and dump the puck in. You know, outwork the Lightning. That's how you beat the trap, that's how you've always beaten the trap.

Nothing to do with the story, just a great shot of Downie. Getty Images

5 comments:

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