By Stu Hackel
Isn’t that video above terrific? On Wednesday night, Tampa Bay’s 1-3-1 defense against Philadelphia forced Mike Milbury to storm off the set in Versus’s studio during the second intermission, and that’s reason enough for us to nominate the Lightning’s Guy Boucher as not just NHL Coach of Year, but also for the The George Foster Peabody Award for distinguished and meritorious public service to television.
We’ll get into the teeth of Boucher’s trap in a moment, but first to the action, or lack thereof, in Tampa Bay’s 2-1 OT victory. Here’s how the Lightning started the game:
This was Tampa Bay setting up in a neutral zone defense — something that the NHL has seen in various permutations for as long as the league has been around — and the Flyers deciding that they weren’t going to get trapped by it. Philly waited for a Lightning player to break the formation so they’d have a more clear avenue for advancing the puck. Tampa Bay, however, did not cooperate. It was a standoff, with two coaches, Boucher and the Flyers’ Peter Laviolette, not deviating from their game plans or allowing the other the advantage that would come from abandoning their respective approaches.
That’s as bizarre as anything I’ve seen in 50 years of watching the NHL. And it was, in its own weird way, kind of fun and dramatic if only because of how different it was and you had to wonder how it would be resolved. Referee Chris Rooney, who handled this perfectly, made the right call, using Rule 72 which prohibits one team or one player from intentionally not playing the puck. The rule is intended for use on what used to be called slow whistles (delayed penalties, delayed offsides and such), but Rooney creatively applied it here. (On TSN.ca, former ref Kerry Fraser coincidentally blogged earlier this week about Rule 72 and its uses, and my guess is that he’ll have another post about this incident shortly.)
After Rooney killed the play and ordered a face-off, the Lightning’s Marty St. Louis skated to the bench and asked Boucher, “What do you want me to do?” Boucher told him to stick with the plan. (And we know this thanks to Pierre McGuire in his spot between the benches. McGuire was at his best in this game, and for all of Milbury’s humourous theatrics later in the studio, McGuire provided solid and insightful reporting on how this unfolded all night, proving once again how valuable he is to our understanding of what goes on during games. In fact, the entire TV crew, including the guys in the booth and the truck, did a masterful job explaining and showing how things evolved both live and on replay.)
About five minutes later, the Flyers had clear possession of the puck in their zone and the Lightning again backed off their aggressive forecheck. The stalemate resumed and Rooney then killed the play a second time, explaining to Laviolette that his team was required to advance the puck. The Lightning’s defensive posture had been effective. By the midway point in the period, each team had taken only three shots. McGuire interviewed Boucher during a commercial break and the coach said he told his team to “Stick with our plan, not their plan.” The Flyers are the best offensive team in the NHL, Boucher explained, and his team had held them to only a handful of shots. “That’s what we want,” he said.
After that, when the Lightning backed off, Flyers defensemen Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Brayden Coburn would just hold the puck on their sticks and skate lazy circles in their zone to stay nominally within the rules while the Lightning stood in their positions — one passive forechecker, three guys lined up at the center line, and one deep defender in his own zone. Who would blink first?
A fourth time, the Flyers held the puck in their zone for about 35 seconds before attempting to break the trap after the home fans had booed the visitors for not moving the puck forward. The Lighting broke up the attack, shot it into the Flyers’ zone and it happened again. As the fans booed, McGuire relayed that the players on Philly’s bench were screaming at the Lightning players for their passive play. “They’re mocking them! They’re openly mocking them!” he reported.
It happened a couple more times during the game, with about two-and-a-half minutes of the first period and perhaps three-and-a-half of total playing time looking more frozen than fluid. Despite some good action, especially as the game went on, the moments of tactical impasse dominated the discussion during and after the game.
On Versus after the first period, Milbury and Keith Jones fumed that the Lightning were ruining the sport, that this was terrible for the NHL. On TSN, although they were showing the Rangers-Senators game, a couple of intermission segments were devoted to it and the reaction was more balanced. Here’s one.
TSN’s panelists all had strong points to make. Bob McKenzie warned against knee-jerk reactions to something very new and unique. Aaron Ward said it was the Lightning’s job to win the game and they had to do it without two of their best defensemen, Mattias Ohlund and Victor Hedman, who are both injured. Marc Crawford felt that fans won’t want to watch a game in which nothing happens.
In another interesting TSN segment (video), McKenzie mentioned that Devils won the Stanley Cup playing the trap. The panel noted in the second period that the Lightning changed tactics, caught the Flyers off guard and got dangerous scoring chances. That’s how Boucher — who does have university degrees in psychology — coached during the playoffs last season, rapidly changing his tactics just when everyone thought they had his team figured out. It worked quite well, getting the Lightning to within one game of the Stanley Cup Final. And it worked again on Wednesday night.
The questions that arise from this are obvious. First, since ours is a culture of blame, who is at fault here? And the second is what, if anything, should the NHL do about it?
Are the Lightning in the wrong for sitting back in the trap, a tactic that seriously damaged the entertainment value of the NHL in the “Dead Puck Era” from the early 1990s until the post-lockout rules opened up the neutral zone and enhanced the game’s speed? Or are the Flyers the guilty party for sitting back in their zone and being unwilling to do what a hockey team is supposed to do: try to advance the puck and score a goal?
There’s lots of sitting going on here, and my reaction could be construed as sitting on the fence. But, really, neither team is at fault and both are at fault. I’ve never been a fan of neutral zone defenses. I like to see teams pursue the puck when they don’t have it. But there are all sorts of legitimate ways to get the puck back other than with a strong forecheck. Additionally, Boucher was facing a situation in which he had a crippled defense corps facing a powerful offense. Was he supposed to surrender the two points? Hardly.
And what of the Flyers? They just held on to the puck, went nowhere with it and didn’t try to play the game. Where is the right in that? A number of observers mentioned that Laviolette was making a statement to the entire league that these defenses are bad for the sport, but I think he had a more immediate agenda: He knows — and obviously respects — what his opponent can accomplish by trapping and counterattacking. Why should he play into that? He’s got a way he wants to attack and the Lightning defense was preventing it. He’s trying to get the two points as well.
The notion of finding fault here isn’t helpful. But NHL GMs are set to meet next week and (as TSN’s Darren Dreger confirmed during their telecast) what occurred in this game will be on the agenda. What should be done?
TSN’s James Duthie mentioned last night (and Marc Crawford agreed) that the NBA has rules outlawing some defensive formations. They prohibit the defensive tactic of dropping one man into the free throw lane when not actively guarding an opponent. Transferred to hockey, that might mean that one player back in the defensive zone would violate the rule. But that doesn’t solve the problem of the other players who are stationary in the neutral zone. Must all of them actively guard opponents? It seems a rule outlawing that or any defensive system in hockey makes little sense. What everyone seems to forget when drawing parallels to the NBA is that this league also requires the ball to be advanced over half the court in eight seconds and a shot taken within 24. Would those who want to mimic the NBA also mandate that NHL teams must take a shot, or advance the puck, within a certain time frame? Doubtful.
Removing the two-line offside pass in 2005 did a great deal to reduce the effectiveness of neutral zone defenses. Teams that didn’t adjust to the new rules fell behind the pack. As Ken Hitchcock pointed out when he was hired by the Blues earlier this week, it is now a 200-foot game, and adapting to that is a necessity in order to win. You can’t consistently play a 150-foot game in the NHL any longer. Boucher doesn’t coach that way all of the time — maybe not even most of the time. In any case, his team’s defense is hardly effective no matter what system he uses. Tampa Bay is currently ranked 24th in goals-against. No one is in a rush to copy them.
The players, of course, wouldn’t like to play trapping hockey all season long and it’s a concern that fans are paying lots of money to see exciting hockey and don’t want to watch teams sit on the puck or sit back all night. But the truth is, it didn’t go on all night on Wednesday. It was for less than four of the game’s 62-1/2 minutes. If there is a danger that this tactic could become a fixture in the NHL, a few minutes of it in a single game doesn’t prove that.
It would be a danger, however, to over-react to this like Mad Mike Milbury did, and then start drawing up rules that would destroy the game’s current balance between offense and defense, which has been pretty damn good for the last six seasons.
And when it comes to trapping songs, there are none better than this: