The timeless hockey cliché excusing any loss goes, “the bounces just didn’t go our way tonight.” Hockey reigns as possibly the most opportunistic sport there is—ten people chase a zigzagging vulcanized rubber disc on some chilly water, after all—so naturally folks take some comfort in knowing their success or failure, to a certain extent, hinges on chance.
But recycling that phrase night after night totally undermines how much control hockey players have over putting themselves in positions that either convert or create the right bounces. Scoring opportunities do not automatically renew over and over regardless of their actors’ efforts—or lack thereof—to produce something of quality. Hockey games are not soap operas.
Generating bounces—and preventing them on the defensive side—all boils down to creativity versus complacency. When Johnny Gaudreau streaks up the left wall only to unload a distant, unscreened slap shot right into Matt Murray’s glove, complacency kills all possibilities of a real chance. But when Johnny Gaudreau streaks up the left wall and cuts inwards around Nikita Zaitsev with a deftly deployed toe-drag, creativity gives his team the single best chance they had to snip their 3-1 deficit against the Ottawa Senators on Monday night in half.
The Flames’ ultimate 5-1 loss against the Senators involved a winning team who routinely converted on their opponents’ complacency—someone on the Flames mirrored Pink Floyd in 1987 and suffered A Momentary Lapse of Reason on every goal against—and a losing team who failed to convert on their own brief spurts of creativity. Misjudgements, miscalculations and miscues on the defensive end in the second period cost the Flames the game, while struggling to sustain little flurries of creative and promising judgements, calculations, and cues cost them the comeback.
So, allow us to unpack the creativity and complacency behind all the scored and squandered bounces from Saturday night.
As the above graphic (courtesy of Natural Stat Trick) shows, the Flames only controlled the game and really peppered Matt Murray for that momentary dip in their favour late in the first. As usual for this season so far, the Flames opened the game with 10 lacklustre and practically shotless minutes—but a key shift following the midway mark proved that the Flames’ creativity, like the classic Arcade Fire single off their immaculate 2010 megahit album The Suburbs, was “Ready to Start.”
Cycling, shuffling, dropping nifty behind-the-back passes, executing tasteful toe-drags insured by a properly angled body to protect the puck, again dropping nifty behind-the-back passes. Rather than freeze the puck in the corner or fling a distant wrister, the Flames spent ten minutes zipping slick, crisp passes in tight to bombard Murray with one-timers from prime locations. Though they failed to score before the frame expired, the Flames optimized their bounces through the creativity that lets these bounces happen.
When teams play confident and dynamic hockey focused on generating genuine opportunities to score, they give themselves the best odds to stumble onto positively delicious chances. While the game was even and the Flames were making creative offensive plays with the puck, it seemed like a goal was inevitable. But before they could capitalize on the right bounce springing from all these promising creative chances, Ottawa spun the story around.
All three goals the Senators posted in the second period can be traced to chances afforded by complacency from the Flames. Now, nobody is blaming single players for the goals—as some were indeed ‘bad bounces’—but the opportunities that granted the bounces arose in each case at least in part from a soft defensive decision. And unlike the Flames in the first period, the Senators converted whenever one of these bounces leaped into their laps.
Twitter seems split between blaming Milan Lucic for flicking a lifeless pass into the open ice or Sam Bennett for over-skating and bobbling it when it comes to the turnover that unleashed this odd-man rush against Calgary. Regardless of whose fault the fumbled pass was, though, the real complacency that allowed Artem Anisimov the space to launch his shot was Bennett’s unaware and uninspired backcheck.
Watch the video again. Ottawa’s zone entry itself only actually poses a two-on-two rush, presents an even match-up. But right before Bennett reaches the blueline on his backcheck, he relents. He slows down. He gets complacent. By the time Anisimov joins the rush, Bennett is no longer even bending his knees. He never noticed Anisimov lurking behind him on the rush because he never looked, and he only thrusts his stick out to try foiling Anisimov’s shot attempt once the Sens forward not only catches up but eclipses him on the rush. If Bennett maintained a hard backcheck, he would have beaten Anisimov to the lane from which he eventually scored. If Bennett glanced to his left, he could have shadowed Anisimov and neutralized him with a tactful stick-lift before Tim Stutzle even cut towards them for the drop pass. So, the opportunity for Anismov to even occupy that space on an odd-man rush stems from Bennett’s complacency that let it happen.
On the second goal, it is Valimaki who shrinks away from Drake Batherson and allots him the opportunity to fire. Rather than pounce on Batherson the moment Josh Norris ships a lateral puck his way, Valimaki collapses inwards and crumples into a flimsy blocking stance that Batherson just outwaits and punishes. Maybe he was paranoid after Nikita Nesterov deflected that first goal past David Rittich, but Valimaki should have at the very least extended his stick to steer Batherson away from the middle of the ice, if not stab at the puck. Any confident challenge from Valimaki would have considerably weakened the scoring opportunity there. But Batherson instead enjoys ample time and bountiful space in a premium shooting location, all expenses paid by a complacent defensive moment.
Alright, this one needs no Master’s thesis on how Batherson exploited an opportunity created by a mistake. Raise the puck, Dave. Or rim it. Or aim to the left of the hottest blade in the game right now rather than at his tape. Or leave the puck where it is entirely because Giordano is literally hovering right there to scoop it up. Nobody in a black sweater is even pressuring Rittich to play that puck—he flubs the stoppage behind the net, sees the puck skipping outside the trapezoid and hastens to toss it in Dube’s general direction just because he has the chance. It was an impulsive and short-sighted play from someone who failed to settle the puck down and thereby cost himself the time to survey his options. So Batherson echoed his earlier cheers and scored on an opportunity gifted by Rittich’s complacency.
Three examples of defensive complacency, three opportunities for the right bounces to go the right way, three goals against. And what is especially tragic about the above goal is that it followed a textbook exploitation of a chance generated by creativity with the puck.
Right when Backlund’s skate blade clips the chin on the centre ice Senators logo, all four Ottawa penalty killers flock to him. A complacent decision amidst all that pressure would be ringing the puck around the boards and squashing any chance at a scoring opportunity on the zone entry—but Backlund, being the Swedish mental math wizard that he is, gathers that his crisscrossing winger must be open. Four minus four equals zero. So he elects to make the creative play and funnels a pass through the skates of those bounding towards him, which provides Lucic the very space he needs to not only shoot on the rush but follow his rebound. The rebound skidding off a defenceman’s skate was a lucky bounce, but if Backlund does not draw everyone to himself and then masterfully dish the puck through lateral traffic onto Lucic’s tape, the big man never has the room to even access that lucky bounce.
Most hockey games are won not only by the most skilled players but also the most opportunistic. Yet there is an undeniable and essential correlation between the luckiest opportunities and the creative use of skill to pursue them. Letting confidence take the backseat for complacency to man the wheel surrenders the best opportunities to the opposing side and crashes the car—as the Flames showed on Monday night. So, in future games, the Flames need to learn to drive, alert and agile and aware, for a full 60 minutes.