The Literary Stanley Cup: Conclusion

Photo by “Mafue”, via Wikimedia Commons


What can you say about an underdog that loses? That it was deserved? That all is right because of it?

Or maybe we get too wrapped up in team affiliation to realize that it’s all amazing. Anze Kopitar made it here from Slovenia, Henrik Lundqvist made it here from the 7th round, Justin Williams had a series of injuries that nearly jeopardized his career – Marc Staal, too, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were cast-offs with media-created character issues, and Martin St. Louis and Mats Zuccarello are supposed to be too small for the pro game. The lineups of these two teams are filled with underdogs, people with enthralling stories, both devastating losses (Dominic Moore’s wife, St. Louis’s mother) and personal triumphs (Alec Martinez the Hero, who was given less ice-time than a top 6 forward in the regular season; Willie Mitchell, whose career was nearly over a year ago).

The Kings were such heavy favorites going into the Finals we lost sight of the fact that this was a battle between a 5- and 6-seed. Both teams cut an arduous, impressive path to the Finals, and we were treated to four great, 1-goal games. The closing overtime periods of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs were some of its most exciting – posts rang, Quick and Lundqvist were unbelievable, and Martinez’s goal, celebration, and humble interview were hockey at its purest.

Jonathan Quick, the placeholder for Jonathan Bernier four years ago, made a trio of overtime saves I will never forget. That toe save on a deflected shot, that blocker save through opaque traffic, and again, the blocker, on an excellent wrister from Chris Kreider. And then there’s Brian Boyle’s goal to put the Rangers ahead 2-1; in a flash of dexterity and speed, he gained the outside, then went top-shelf across his body. If you’ve played the game, you know how hard that shot is to pull off. Boyle, the gargantuan former King, the Blueshirts’ 4th-liner. So many players. So many stories. Underdogs all.

If we can just experience the game this way, how awesome it all is, I don’t think we’ll ever lose.

Epilogue

At the end, I couldn’t help but think how far we’ve come from hockey’s roots: that the champions are from Los Angeles, their best player is from Slovenia, the game-winner was score by a guy named Martinez, and they got here combining the best of scouting and analytics. Sometimes, when we live through major historical shifts, we don’t realize how important they are until much later. Even today, when I ask people I know who’ve lived through 1968, I’m struck by how difficult it is for them to attach themselves to the significant events of the time. It’s like they can’t see how they’re connected to these epochal giants as they stomped over the Earth.

So, can you see it?


 

The Literary Stanley Cup: Game Four (Or: Henrik Lundqvist, Timing, & Timelessness)

File:Lundymask.jpg

Photo by “Huntingj38″, via Wikimedia Commons


Game Four

Henrik Lundqvist was a 7th round pick in 2000. He wasn’t a blip on the screen; few, if any, pre-Draft publications even mentioned him. The Central Scouting Bureau ranked him fifth out of six draft-eligible European goaltenders. You have to understand: at the time, European-trained goaltenders were just starting to shake their reputation for being curiosities, and major risks, rather than reliable draft picks. The few that gained starting work had such unlikely paths to a regular gig it could hardly pass as a blueprint for success. Dominik Hasek spent seven stellar seasons in then-Czechoslovakia’s highest league after being drafted in the 10th round in 1983, and even then he didn’t get a chance until the Blackhawks traded him for Stephane Beauregard and the Sabres gave up on a sore-kneed Grant Fuhr (previously acquired for the unconscionable price of Daren Puppa, Dave Andreychuk, and a 1st round pick). Nikolai Khabibulin was well-regarded coming out of Europe, but NHL teams still didn’t know what to make of former Soviet-bloc goaltenders and he wasn’t drafted until the 9th round in 1992. Khabibulin would get a shot early, as the Jets lost their enthusiasm for relatively new acquisition Tim Cheveldae and Khabibulin won the starting job. It was the coincidence of Hasek and Khabibulin’s success by 1994 (and, to a lesser degree, Tommy Soderstrom’s) that planted the kernel of the idea in the minds of NHL front offices: there’s goaltending talent in Europe.

By 2000, it was still a bit of a mixed record; Soderstrom flamed out, as had all the other European goaltenders drafted in the early 1990s except Khabibulin, and the Bruins had whiffed mightily on the first European-trained goaltender taken in the 1st round, Evgeni Ryabchikov.  But the continued success of Hasek, Khabibulin, newcomers Tommy Salo and Roman Turek, and an exciting group of young AHL goaltenders including the Kentucky Thorougblades’ 1999-2000 triumvirate of Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, and Johan Hedberg were evolving the draft. As the NHL entered the new millennium, one out of every three goaltending draft picks were European, up from one for every nine at the beginning of the 90s. The 2000 NHL Entry Draft set a new record – 13 of 32 drafted goaltenders were European, an astonishing 41% of all goalies selected.

Yet for all this change, Lundqvist was just a raw 18-year old Swedish junior goaltender, the last-picked of his backstopping countrymen. He wasn’t even considered the best prospect in his family; his twin brother Joel was taken in the 3rd round of the same draft. Like Hasek before him, Lundqvist’s path to the NHL involved years of outstanding service in European leagues, and a bit of luck.  After all, a year after the Rangers drafted Lundqvist, they took exciting WHLer Dan Blackburn with the 10h overall pick. And when Blackburn had the misfortune of a devastating nerve injury that forced him to play with no catch glove, the Rangers made Al Montoya their 6th overall pick in 2004. In a New York Times piece after the Montoya selection, Assistant GM Don Maloney talked more about Lundqvist’s trade value than his future value for the organization.

But the 2004-05 lost season was anything-but in the story of King Henrik. Al Montoya had one of the worst seasons of his young career; the Rangers let struggling starter Mike Dunham hit the free agent market; they also let the best goaltender in the AHL, Jason Labarbera, go UFA, despite 19 shutouts and a 93.5% save percentage over his last 112 games. To stop the bleeding, the Rangers signed Kevin Weekes, a capable starter who played a major role in the Carolina Hurricanes run to the Cup Finals in 2002. With Weekes in the fold, the Rangers seemed set in goal for 2005-06.

The story of any great goaltender has a turning point, whether it was the death of Terry Sawchuk’s goaltender brother, Ken Dryden’s 6 games at the end of the 1970-71 regular season, 20 Cup playoff games for the 20-year old Patrick Roy in 1986 (after a middling 1985-86 performance), Fuhr’s bad knees in late ’93, or 17 Cup playoff games for the 21-year old Martin Brodeur in 1994. Lundqvist’s is a bit more complicated and, in fact, might involve two key points.

Going into the SEL playoffs in 2002, he was still a raw prospect who struggled to hold the starting job. But in 8 stellar playoff games, he transcended anything he’d ever done, and unlike in previous seasons was able to carry his playoff performance to the following season. The key might have been participating in an offseason sport to keep his edge; in the summer of 2002, Lundqvist led Team Sweden to a gold medal in the IIHL Inline Hockey World Championships and continued to play inline hockey in the summer up to his first seasons in the NHL. As he mentioned in a recent interview with Men’s Health, he’s played tennis through the “last five or six” summers to help him maintain that same edge. By autumn 2002 he had figured out how to translate his playoff performance to the longer regular season. 2002 was the personal turning point.

2005-06 was the reckoning. Perhaps it was the Rangers’ much-publicized big-spending futility – from Valeri Kamensky, to Bobby Holik, to Darius Kasparaitis – that made them sensitive to further embarrassment from free agent failures. Perhaps it was that full season of competition; Weekes played very little hockey during the lockout, and later admitted Lundqvist had never really slowed down from his earlier successes in 2004 and 2005. Perhaps, then, it was Weekes’ rough start, and Lundqvist’s strong one – after a shaky first game, Lundqvist’s save percentage never dipped below 92%, while Weekes struggled to reach 90% all year. Whatever the reason, Lundqvist turned the rest of the way, and has been running with it ever since.

Considering the massive amount of press that follows New York athletes, I think I can spare you a play-by-play of Lundqvist’s ensuing career. We know who he is, how good he is, and yet for as good as he might be it seems like everyone wants to avoid some hard truths: 1) These are Henrik’s first Stanley Cup Finals, and 2) at 32, and with the Rangers committing a lot of money to questionable talent, it’s hard to be confident he’ll have another chance. Nearly 40% of the Rangers cap space these next four years are already occupied by the Brad Richards, Rick Nash, Dan Girardi, and Lundqvist contracts.* Kreider and Zuccarello are already into their RFA, and after next season Stepan and Hagelin will follow. Marc Staal’s contract will be up for renewal after next year as well. Anthony Duclair, Jesper Fast, and Pavel Buchnevich are promising, but will they get time? Will they even pan out? The Rangers are a decent team now, but the concerns for the future are palpable.

And now, we’ve been given four intense Stanley Cup games, including one masterful performance by Lundqvist. There is no question Henrik was the star of the last game, just as there’s no question that Jonathan Quick was the star of Game 3. But how are we going to remember Lundqvist? One of the best playoff performers to never with the Cup? Has anyone ever been remembered that way? Much of his career has been spent making the most of a mediocre team; in 91 playoff games and sporting a 92.2% save percentage, the Rangers have gone 43-48. For comparison, Roberto Luongo gave his team 91.6%, below his career average, and still ended up 32-31.

There’s a certain amount of tragedy wrapped up in these Finals, as it stands. Quick is outstanding in Game 3, gets deserved recognition in a game where Lundqvist was the victim of three bad bounces. Lundqvist is outstanding in Game 4, but the “luck” story carries through and all of the focus is on goal-line snow (which was surprisingly light at the end of a 3rd period where the Rangers were heavily outshot) and broken sticks. The Kings hold the odds here, everyone knows that – but the one time Lundqvist might have a positive, playoff chapter added to his story, instead it appears it will be his forgotten game.

For a goaltender, timing is everything. It’s the pre-game routine, and how much time they get to nap, or how long they have to face the powerplay, or how long between this and their next start; it’s every movement to every puck in every game. Yet timing for the goaltender pales in comparison to the timing of Henrik Lundqvist – as it must for a low-ranked 7th round prospect that becomes an NHL starter. Like tumblers in a lock, the NHL’s attitudes towards European goaltenders, the successes of those goaltenders, and the Rangers’ uncertainty post-Richter, post-Blackburn, all fell into place and afforded an 18-year old goaltender with a “better” twin brother to reach the top of the sport.

But timing doesn’t make you timeless, and sometimes I wonder: will it matter if Lundqvist doesn’t win this Stanley Cup?


*Worth noting: it is likely after this year that Brad Richards’ contract will be bought out with no penalty. This will buy them over $6.5m in cap space per year, but they still will need all of it and more if they want to keep their young talent.

The Literary Stanley Cup: Game Three

Photos by “Lisa Gansky” (Muzzin), “Michael Miller” (Stralman), via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author


Game Three

Warmup

Regardless of what a player might say in their interview, hockey is a self-centered game. Players see the game, experience the game from their perspective, measure it more by what they did than what the team accomplished, and carry with them the scrutiny of millions of people that watched them do it. Any star player will tell you, there are countless people who will tell them or ask them what they did, right after they did it. Why are player interviews so bland? Well, part of it is the need to not make waves, because that can come to bear on a lot of people beyond the player, but they also convey a sense of, “I just did it. You saw it. We’re trying to help the team win. What else is there to say?”

Each player has a particular window into the game; speaking from personal experience, there is no greater perspective than that of the supporting defenseman, the guy who covers the back of the other guy. They play deeper, follow the play rather than lead it, contain the offensive zone, and otherwise are so close to the game it’s remarkable to find them involved in so little of it. They are the eyes and abilities the goaltender wished they had: seeing the offense up-close, relaxing back to slow the opposing attack, covering in front, clearing the crease. Rather than focus on the comprehensive, this Game Three review focuses on two players who seem nearly inconsequential at times; some observers might even say they “disappear” in games. Of course, Anton Stralman and Jake Muzzin are there, they are always there, but you have to look to see them.

Anton Stralman’s First Period

Stralman’s first action is facing a charging Jarrett Stoll as Stoll attempts to enter the Rangers zone with the puck – Stralman steers him to the boards and Stoll gives up the puck. Later, Stralman gets the puck in his own corner and is bumped off by Mike Richards. He moves back to position to the right of his net, and leaves the ice soon after.

His next shift begins with an own-zone cross-ice pass to Chris Kreider to start the Rangers up into the neutral zone. As the play comes back to the Rangers’ zone, Stralman knocks the puck off the lead King and back to Marian Gaborik; the defenseman follows through by sweeping away Gaborik to the boards. He knocks over Gaborik in the corner. The puck finds its way to Jonathan Quick and Stralman keeps after Gaborik, tying him up and giving him a slight chop as Quick freezes it.

When Stralman returns to the play, he and Staal struggle to clear the zone; when they do, the Kings come back with it, and Stralman is facing Kopitar one-on-one. Kopitar beats Stralman to the outside, but Stralman hangs on and keeps Kopitar from taking it in to the slot. When Tanner Pearson approaches with a similar chance, Stralman wards the young forward off towards the boards, and Pearson cuts loose a relatively innocuous shot that Henrik Lundqvist handles easily.

Late in the period, he gets his first taste of offense, starting a Rangers charge with a long up-ice pass to Mats Zuccarello, then taking it himself up through the neutral zone. The latter attempt, unfortunately, is lost at the opposing blue line. When the Kings try to break out a minute later, Stralman shuts it down by aggressively working Pearson along the boards and trying to freeze the puck. He kicks the puck out of the scrum to a teammate.

When Jeff Carter scores in the dying seconds of the first, Stralman is watching from the bench.

Jake Muzzin’s First Period

Much of Muzzin’s action in the first is sweeping up after others; beginning with scooping up a Ranger dump-in and putting the puck up the boards. He engages a Ranger on a second attack along the boards and attempts to strip the puck, but fails – later retrieves a puck Doughty was able to grab and move along the wall. When the play returns deep in the Kings zone, Muzzin focuses on tying up Kreider, almost too much as he follows Kreider behind the goal line as a different Ranger gets a wraparound opportunity.

Later in the period, Muzzin and Doughty are holding the offensive zone when Doughty gets in trouble at the top – and sends a desperation pass to Muzzin who is also covered. Muzzin quick shovels it deep into the offensive zone and out of trouble. The Rangers ice the puck. The following faceoff, Muzzin tries to contain at the blue line but fumbles the puck; on the other hand, is he able to deflect the Rangers offensive push over to Doughty, who handles it. In the meantime, Muzzin ties up with Derek Dorsett as the puck enters the Kings zone and they both go down in an ugly crash. He keeps after Dorsett in the zone, ties him up, does a lot of stickwork to keep Dorsett under control. Dorsett had provided a valuable screen in Game 1 for a Ryan McDonagh goal, so it’s clear Muzzin is keeping an eye on him.

After a back-and-forth pass with Doughty, the Rangers regain control and Muzzin keeps Martin St. Louis below the goal line; St. Louis gets the puck through to the crease, though, and into trouble for the Kings. Quick helps avert crisis, and Muzzin chases down St. Louis and checks him into the boards. Half-a-minute later, the Rangers are re-entering the zone, but Muzzin shuts down Kreider as Kreider tries to move the puck forward.

The following shift, Muzzin starts with a leave-it pass in his own zone that nobody is jumping on until Justin Williams skates onto it. As the Rangers bring it back towards the Kings’ zone, Benoit Pouliot dumps it past Muzzin, and Quick, who seemed out-of-sync with Muzzin all game, pushes the puck too hard towards Muzzin and it passes Muzzin. He tangles with Dorsett but Dorsett gets the upper hand – thankfully nothing comes of it all. A later offensive-zone faceoff is charged hard by the Rangers, and Muzzin drops back to cushion against the attack. When they ward it off, Muzzin gives Doughty a cross-ice pass that Doughty takes up the ice. Moving into the offensive zone, Muzzin gets an opportunity as he runs an overlap with Anze Kopitar and heads to the opposing corner, but Kopitar doesn’t give it to him and Muzzin gets back into position shortly therafter.

On a late penalty-kill, Muzzin covers Brad Richards in front of the net, then follows him below the goal line. He makes a clear attempt on a bizarre, flashy spinning backhand that goes instead to a Rangers defenseman. The Rangers are unsuccessful on the powerplay, though, and Muzzin leaves the ice.

When Jeff Carter scores in the dying seconds of the first, Muzzin is watching from the bench.

Anton Stralman’s Second Period

It’s at this point that Stralman, literally, starts to lose some time out there.

The Kings gets the puck into the Rangers’ zone early; Dwight King carries the puck and Stralman checks King hard into the corner – but King manages to wriggle away. Stralman eventually gains control of the puck and pauses to let the Rangers set up their transition. He plays it up the boards and the jumping puck lands on Kreider’s tape near the opposing blue line.

Stralman has his man as Mike Richards gets a big opportunity in the slot; Richards continues to dog him with a big hit as Stralman sent the puck behind his own net. Staying back in the ensuing play, Stralman steers another one-on-one to the boards and picks the puck – then sends it up the boards out of harm’s way. He gets his first shot attempt, a wrister from far back in the offensive zone that amounts to nothing.

One more big play in the following shift as McDonagh makes a disastrous turnover in his own zone; Stralman helps tie up the dangerous Kings forwards and the Rangers get away clean. In his final moves, Stralman considers jumping up into the play deep in the offensive zone, then hangs back and makes a big hit at the opposing blue line when the Kings gain possession.

Stralman is on the bench for both of the remaining Kings goals, and has a limited role in the powerplay. A righty shot in a deep righty lineup, his strong defensive work gets him some penalty kill time, and little more.

Jake Muzzin’s Second Period

At the same time Stralman is “disappearing,” Muzzin seems to be a part of everything.

Muzzin shifts around to support early when Doughty moves up in the zone; he corrals the puck when it gets behind Doughty and plays it across to Carter in the neutral zone. As the Kings get a powerplay, a defensive zone faceoff freezes Quick and Muzzin behind the net, and Carl Hagelin runs into Muzzin. Recovered now, the Kings push into the Rangers zone; Muzzin, at the top of the powerplay, makes a nifty pass underneath a Rangers forward to Carter, who makes a smart re-direction that almost gives Lundqvist trouble. On the next possession, Muzzin, Kopitar, and Gaborik make passes up the boards and Muzzin decides to throw a wrister from way back towards the net. St. Louis, about 15 feet away in the high slot, tries to glove the puck, but only succeeds in deflecting it and fooling Lundqvist as the puck hits the back of the cage. Jake Muzzin, the second fiddle to Drew Doughty, now has more goals in these playoffs than Doughty, and more than Muzzin had in the regular season. The NHL playoffs are funny like that.

The euphoria of the goal wearing off, Muzzin drops back into support, picking the puck from Ranger possessions and moving it up the wall. At one point, his man gets a good tip on the puck but it doesn’t get through – at another moment, Muzzin moves Brassard to the boards, but Brassard gets the puck out front and a dangerous shot is kicked out by Quick. The rebound is hard for a tired Muzzin to control, and he’s unable to move it out of danger. A Ranger controls it and gets a good shot through Muzzin, who tries to block it but fails.

For his following shift, Muzzin loses control of a bouncing puck that gets past him, opening up a huge opportunity for Rick Nash. Trying to recover, Muzzin gets back too vigorously and squashes Quick as Nash almost converts a wraparound. Doughty, this time covering Muzzin’s back, gets a hooking penalty as he slows up Nash. The ensuing powerplay ends up being the Rangers’ best, including a number of huge chances. At the end of it, as Muzzin tries to clear the puck, Hagelin slashes Muzzin’s stick in-half and gets called.

A slow latter-half of the period is punctuated by some confident movement forward. Muzzin jumps up in the play a couple of times, though in neither case does the puck go his way. On a backcheck from one of these plays, Muzzin smartly strips a completely surprised Ranger of the puck. A short time later, covering Dorsett on a defensive zone faceoff, Muzzin does a lift-and-dump of Dorsett for no apparent reason and puts the Kings down a man. Muzzin spends the rest of the period riding pine, first in the sin bin, then in front of a beakish Darryl Sutter.

Anton Stralman’s Third Period

Though Stralman sees more overall minutes than the second, somehow he, as a player in this game, seems to shrink further. Almost all the discernible plays he makes involve catching a puck that’s been dumped-in, or moving a puck up the transition into the neutral zone, mostly along the boards. A couple of times he starts to jump up, but the plays are so broken he never gets any opportunities. A capable two-way defenseman in Columbus, Stralman’s Game Three is the story of his career.

Jake Muzzin’s Third Period

Everything is slowing down now. With the score 3-0, the Kings have shifted fully into lead protection.

There’s a scary moment in the opening seconds of the third as Kreider slips through Muzzin and Doughty on a nice set play from the Rangers. Muzzin keeps on him, though, ensuring Kreider only has a small window to make his shot. Muzzin and Doughty are pulled off the ice immediately, their 10-second shift destined to be a curious note in the books (but for this piece).

Like Stralman, Muzzin does much more support work, retrieving dumped pucks and flicking the puck along the wall. Again, Muzzin gets too aggressive on a former puck-carrier and leaves behind an open Ranger up front as a shot comes in from the point. Later, he faces down and blocks a wrister from Derek Stepan, and another shot with his hand. Doughty jumps ahead as the Kings move up the ice; Williams moves back to cover for Doughty. Muzzin holds the offensive blue line and throws a wrist shot towards the net – the same kind that went in for him before. This time, though, it’s blocked well before it can reach the net.

A following shift brings a 2-on-2 Muzzin and Doughty’s direction; both defenders collapse on the lead man, which gives Zuccarello a good look with the puck. Nothing comes of it. It ends up being the last big chance for the Rangers while Muzzin is on the ice.

As the Kings continue to protect the lead, Muzzin gets more physical, giving hits, taking hits, sweeping and stick-checking Rangers away from the center of the rink. Doughty has one last big push forward in the game, and Muzzin provides crucial support when Stepan and the Rangers bring it back before Doughty can recover. Muzzin keeps Stepan outside, and Stepan eventually dumps the puck in.

A final agonizing moment as Quick has another weird settling of the puck for Muzzin; the puck pops out of their control but the Rangers can’t control it any better, and the remaining seconds tick from the game. The Rangers pull Lundqvist with nearly 4 ½ minutes left, but the Kings are so committed to their defensive shell the Rangers hardly get a chance, and the Kings don’t score on the empty net.

Epilogue

How much does an Anton Stralman matter to a game? A Jake Muzzin? Any Kings fan will tell you Muzzin meant a lot to this game, and his goal was certainly almost as important as Carter’s. Does it matter that Muzzin made some costly mistakes that didn’t lead to Ranger goals? Not many Rangers fans will tell you that Stralman had a strong game, but in the minutes he played, he did. Does it matter that any of these things happened in a Kings win, Rangers loss? I suppose it depends on how you define “mattering;” maybe mattering for you is focused on the one game, and its outcome – for others, it’s how this contributes to an overall assessment of Stralman the defenseman, Muzzin the defenseman. There are even others who might look to what this says about the Kings, or the Rangers, and their talent, systems, coaches.

Whatever the case, I wanted to present these particular players because a) we still don’t grasp defenseman contributions particularly well, and b) narratives of games still don’t ask the big questions of player worth, and what matters, particularly well. Captured in the lens of Stralman and Muzzin we see a different game, different scenarios to command, create, or react to. Muzzin scored a goal, but if pressed I’d have to say Stralman probably played the better game. Just as bounces and fragility can paint drastically different pictures, looking at steady, consistent play can give us an idea of what we can rely on, more often than not.

After all, it’s that kind of play that made the Kings who they are today. And now they need one win to win it all.


 

The Literary Stanley Cup: Game Two

Photo by “CANUCKS HOCKEY BLOG”, via Wikimedia Commons, altered by author


Game Two

Fragility. Again. We are so close to things being different. It’s why hitting the post is such a shock; it wakes us up to the reality, the fragility of the numbers on the board and the players in the game. All in that piercing ting.

In the many-worlds interpretation of what Hugh Everett called the “universal wave function” in the 1950s, in its infinity the universe plays out every possible event somewhere, sometime. I could have woken up at 5:30am this morning, or I could’ve slept till noon, here, now – and somewhere, sometime, I also exist, and I did. In history, contemporary historians address this by avoiding what’s called teleology, or presenting the story as if its events were inevitable. You leave open the possibility that something else could have happened, some miniscule measure could have made the difference, and shattered the progress of our time and place.

Our story, late at night, was completed with an extraordinary play, writ by a defensive-defenseman having the offensive game of his life and the league’s most valuable instigator (who, ironically, never gets instigator penalties). In a different place, Willie Mitchell’s shot doesn’t get through. In a different time, Dustin Brown doesn’t get a stick on it, or doesn’t get it right, or Henrik Lundqvist swallows it in his arm. Somewhere, this game is still playing, and the players drag through the motions like drunk sailors – stinking, too.

And in another life, a referee felt that Dwight King and his bear-like body had barreled carelessly into Lundqvist, and made the call. Kings faithful, there, would never forget the time the referee made that call, just as Sabres fans will never forget the Hull goal, just as Leafs fans will never forget that time Gretzky got away with one. Little comfort comes to those who can imagine there is a different world, where the Stars lose because the Hull goal was waved off, Varada nets it in the 4th overtime, and the Sabres carry the momentum to win it in Game 7. Little comfort to those who can envision Gretzky in the box on a rare overtime penalty, while a bloodied Gilmour pots the winner.

But we have this world to deal with. And here, you can only look back, and see all the little things that might have been. Unravel the twine, examine all the frays that could have broken the string, if only; see Willie Mitchell, erstwhile hero, smartly handle the puck behind the net and save Quick (he of prior puck-mishandling humiliation) the embarrassment; see one Ranger, any Ranger, stop that Stoll trickler as it meanders into the net; see the indomitable Kopitar muscle Zuccarello off the puck before he can sweep it into the net. Any of those goals, any of those times, and we’d have a different story as we move to New York.

For as much as the past ran this delicate balance, the future is supremely more fragile. Does Muzzin make the next adjustment that changes this series, or does Stralman make the mistake? Will Moore, the widower, the tragic hero of the Garden, revisit the glory, or does a terrifying gaffe by the rookie Pearson steal the climax, and forever infantilize him in that miniscule moment in time?

Sometimes we feel more because of all the stories we could have had. It’s that we alone have this world, this time, this place, that makes the importance to us so sensitive – delicate, even. As the Kings and Rangers take the ice tomorrow, we are going to be introduced to a vibrant set of bounces and tips, saves and shots – pulling, tearing, stitching the fabric of the story. And what we have at the end will tear like tissue paper in the hands of our what-if reworkings, player failures, and coaching reviews. Fragility.


 

The Literary Stanley Cup: Game One

Photo by “Resolute”, via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author


Game One

Warmup

It’s hard to look at Martin St. Louis in his blueshirt and not be reminded of Marcel Dionne; both were traded late in their careers from the teams that would forever define them, destined to end their employ in Madison Square Garden. Coming from mythic careers on far smaller stages, they handed the reins to young guns who might benefit from the exciting atmosphere they helped to create – Luc Robitaille in late-80s Los Angeles, and Steven Stamkos in today’s Tampa Bay. But there was a big difference between Dionne and St. Louis: Dionne left L.A. to find the Cup, St. Louis has no choice but to go through L.A. to get it.

The Final starts in L.A., a much different L.A. from the one Dionne left a quarter-century ago. Energized by a new, Cup-winning legacy, emboldened by a core of players in their prime, there are possibly only three times in NHL history that L.A. was such a hot spot: at the peak of the Crown Line in 1979 when nobody could stop Simmer-Dionne-Taylor, when Gretzky arrived in 1988, and when the Kings made the Finals 5 years later. In none of those three cases were the Kings a better possession team than they are now.

The players roll into the game wearing the playoffs on their faces. It is always striking to see how it ages each one of them, and equally striking for those that expose their youth. As if to emphasize St. Louis’s 38 years, a dusting of gray powders his chin, though it does little to soften the intensity of his eyes. Jeff Carter is somewhat disarming in the juxtaposition of a trimmed beard but missing front teeth, like a self-conscious Bobby Clarke. Tall and thin, Carter is part playoff veteran, part deep-sea fisherman. Brian Boyle is given delightful expression and panache with his Musketeer-like facial hair, a somewhat comical affectation for the abrasive and occasionally clunky 6’7” forward. And then there’s Dustin Brown, his bizarre countenance half-mad with whiskers.

 

Period 1

How do you describe Henrik Lundqvist? Do you describe the good-looking man that takes off the mask, ready for the red carpet? Do you describe how Rangers fans have felt for over a decade, knowing they have a chance game-in, game-out? Or do you describe the attitudes of his Atlantic/Metropolitan foes, who are tired of hearing how great he is from the Rangers faithful?

Enough of that. Lundqvist on the ice is like watching a video game goaltender, not capable programmatically of moving too far from his crease, as if he is controlled by a steel rod from the center of the cage. When something gets through, you wonder how it could have happened, even after you’ve seen the replay. Every movement is fluid, but not too fluid, every save amazing, but not too amazing – either thing would require him to be superfluous or out-of-position, which he is rarely. Love him, hate him, there’s a reason he is one of the most reliable goaltenders in the NHL.

His isn’t the story of Period 1, Game 1, though. It’s the nervy Kings that are center stage, playing scattered positionally, coughing up the puck, getting turned around by the fast Rangers forwards. Not even Drew Doughty is immune; his turnover on a risky stickhandle gives Benoit Pouliot a jump on Doughty’s linemate, Jake Muzzin – Muzzin quickly widens the gaps by stumbling. Now unopposed, Pouliot makes the smart play for a left-shot, a cradle-to-quick-wrister from the high slot, beating Jonathan Quick blocker side.

Less than two minutes later, another Kings’ defense miscue; this time Slava Voynov is humiliated, first with losing control of the puck, then by personally sinking the dagger. Carl Hagelin, knowing himself, created the break by pushing the puck ahead, using his speed to win the footrace. Yet Quick stops the easy move between the pads, only to have Voynov kick it past him on the rebound. At that moment, Quick is reminded of the vagaries of the ice hockey game. At this point, it’s almost like the Rangers, not the Kings, have been here before.

Nobody encapsulates that point more than Mats Zuccarello, the hairy little magician. The smallest player on the ice (for once, Marty St. Louis isn’t), he nevertheless skates around as if he owns it, showing calmness with the puck you’d expect out of someone twice his size. He deftly pauses to let traffic pass, sails the puck on a delicate saucer over to a waiting teammate. Is there anything more beautiful than that saucer pass? For the moment, no.

Now, how does one describe Anze Kopitar? Do you describe how he can single-handedly make the Slovenian national team competitive? Do you describe how his production has never skipped a beat since entering the league? How about how Kings fans feel knowing they’ve had one of the most complete players in the NHL for over five seasons?

Kopitar the player is, in a word, obstinate. You cannot move him when he’s standing still, and you certainly cannot move him when he himself is moving. He will not be muscled off the puck. There was a time when people said the same of Eric Lindros, a big man who could move that would not be stopped, yet we saw people do just that, from Darius Kasparaitis, to Ed Jovanovski, to Scott Stevens. At one point in the first, Kopitar is shielding Quick, and Marc Staal, all 6’4”, 204 lbs. of him, slams into the unsuspecting Kopitar’s back. Doesn’t move. Ryan McDonagh gets a head of steam and seems to crush Kopitar against the boards, yet it’s the 215 lb. McDonagh who comes away wincing as Kopitar continues on with the play. It does not matter that he isn’t the faster player, or the most agile – Kopitar will win the puck, and you won’t stop him.

The Kings settle in and start to realize who they are late in the first period, and soon thereafter they capitalize. Jeff Carter, stringbean he might be, seems to leverage his way into puck battles like a pry bar; having lost the puck in the corner, he wins it back and pushes it to Kyle Clifford, who has all of 3 goals across 90 games this year. But Kyle Clifford is Don Larsen today, and chips a perfect shot over Lundqvist. And when I say perfect, I mean if Lundqvist knew it was going to happen, it would still go in. What’s more, it’s a goal in miniature; the space between Carter, Clifford, and Lundqvist is all of about five square feet.

With that goal, everything is turning.

 

Period Two

Quick never seems like he’s in the right place. A perpetual overthinker, he is frequently challenging the shooter, or following passes too literally, and trying to jump back into position to regain coverage. There are times in this game you wonder how he could do that 70 or more times a year. Then you realize he has done it, done it for years now, and did it with all the amazing and terrible results you might imagine. Tonight, it works. It may not work on Saturday.

The Kings seize control in the second period, particularly on the powerplay; Doughty roams the top of the offensive zone with ease, threading passes like a Sunday morning pickup game. It must feel nice to be at the blue line on the powerplay, with more space than you’d ever get at evens. Doughty gets a pass and easily puts it through his legs to evade a penalty killer; now facing Lundqvist he makes a quick move and fires it through Lundqvist’s arm. He had to have done that all on purpose, but you can hardly believe it. It’s 2-2.

Soon, the game becomes as contentious as the score. Derick Brassard takes a mindless penalty on Dustin Brown, driving him face-first into the boards despite Brown never controlling the puck. Anton Stralman, not known for his big hits, channels his inner Kyle Clifford and has two perfect ones in the second, dropping both Kings heavily to the ice. Chris Kreider takes a shot at Drew Doughty’s head after a collision, in a near-butt-end that infuriates Doughty. Soon after, Mike Richards clips Brassard up high and Brassard does an excessive embellishment. The boos billow in like a cloud of smoke.

The chippiness of the second period carries as its starkest symbol the close image of Matt Greene, face a furious pink, holding blood-soaked gauze to his cut eyebrow. It’s more about inconvenience than pain; his eyes flicker back and forth, focused on the movement on the ice. You know the minute the trainer removes the needle he will be back out there – in the Final, you save your injuries for the final horn.

The game starts to open up again. Trevor Lewis, of all people, creates two big chances, neither finding the back of the net. Carl Hagelin, already having a great game, breaks free for a second – but this time, Clifford makes a near miraculous backcheck and sweeps away the puck. His goal was important, but he truly saved the Kings’ game with that play.

As the period winds down, the Rangers have a powerplay. Derek Stepan, with a healthy look to take it in, moves off to pass. You have to wonder if that calmness, that looked so good with Zuccarello, might not have gotten the best of Stepan. And you have to wonder if that lost chance will be the one that got away.

 

Period Three

Kopitar is on full display again, wearing two of the best Rangers players, Ryan McDonagh and Brad Richards, like sweaters as he puts a backhand on net. He’s first to the puck as Lundqvist kicks it out, and follows with a solid rebound that Lundqvist barely realizes he’s stopped. But for some more speed and agility, Kopitar could destroy opposing defenses; in other words, he’s not Ovechkin. But he’s here, now, where Ovechkin has never been, and you won’t find a soul in the building who has a problem with that.

Marian Gaborik, who made his first notable play late in the second, beats Dan Girardi in a race to the puck and draws a hook. Anyone rooting for the Rangers now must have a sense of dread realizing not all the Kings have turned it on yet – and in these playoffs Gaborik might be the most dangerous threat. For his work, Gaborik has given the Kings another powerplay; he may be late to the party, but he brought booze.

Every once in a while, the puck arrives at Alec Martinez’s stick, and you have to be impressed with his puck control. Doughty gets a lot of credit for his stickhandling, but it’s Martinez that has the smoothest handle. There is no frantic movement, no panic with the puck; there are players who are obsessed with cushion when holding the puck, convinced it gives the appearance of “puck-on-a-string.” It’s not an appearance for Martinez.

When it’s not on Martinez’s string, the puck is equally drawn to Rick Nash’s tape, as it has been ever since he was at the top of his draft class in 2002. Unlike Kopitar, Nash’s size is just happenstance, which he uses where necessary but only occasionally needs. His creativity in traffic is legendary; one memorable goal, a game-winning tally with 20 seconds remaining against the Coyotes in 2008, involved such an incredible sequence of threads and toe-drags that the viewer is excused if they laugh by the end of it.

Nash nearly has it made in the third period, a quick break and time in the offensive zone; in the first he used it to do a remarkable transition to stickhandling backwards, then using it to try to roll around outside his man. It didn’t work, but it was done so deliberately you nearly saw something new, executed to perfection. This time, though, Willie Mitchell, once burned, backchecks furiously, and sweeps Nash off the puck as Nash falls to the ice. There are times when Nash controls the world, and others where you wonder how he ever did.

Earlier in the period, in one of the weirder moments in the game, Nash pulls on Doughty’s arm and Doughty embellishes. Both players get the gate, Nash for holding and Doughty for diving – it’s a curious penalty rule-set that addresses diving by never really penalizing it, but here we are. Brassard’s earlier dive on the Richards high-stick would’ve been an equally-justified infraction, but so it goes in the land of judgment calls. Nobody can be happy.

Regulation ends in an extraordinary scramble; without the consolation of a standings point, NHL playoff games are an exercise in genuine desperation. Hagelin, yet again, fights for a breakaway, this time looking to clinch the game. A righty shot, his short-side wrister meets Quick’s glove hand and is knocked away. Hagelin tries to put the rebound out front – it goes nowhere except to Kings, and sets up an immediate 2-on-1 in the other direction. Hagelin, in a superhuman effort, makes a mad dash to the other end and disrupts a wraparound attempt by Carter. In what could have been one of the most cruel injustices in this game, a sliding Hagelin nearly deflects the shot off his skate into his own net. Lundqvist, flopping, somehow corrals the pucks away from danger as the last seconds tick away. Even when Lundqvist doesn’t know where he is, he’s in the right place.

 

Overtime

There is no question hockey is better, at this moment. No other sport does this, hangs everything in the balance. You cannot build more suspense than a scenario where any control in the offensive zone can cause your hair to stand on end, anything beyond the blue can be the coup de grâce. Once you’ve felt the true terror of an NHL playoff game, there is no other way you want to watch it.

The fragility of the overtime balance is exactly what can make it turn so abruptly; three shots and 4 ½ minutes in, and Justin Williams gets a quick pass off a turnover by Girardi. Williams, another powder-bearded veteran who had been quiet most of the game, is nevertheless clinical in the finish. A quick snap from between the circles jams the fourth shot precisely into the top left elbow of the post, and it tumbles out nearly as quick – but everyone, everywhere, knows it’s over. The balance has been broken. Game 1, Kings.


 

Prelude to a Literary Stanley Cup: The Coaches

Photos by “CANUCKS HOCKEY BLOG” (Vigneault) & “Buchanan-Hermit” (Sutter), via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author


It’s a good thing they don’t make opposing benches face each other, else Darryl Sutter would disappear. Anyone who has seen a Sutter presser will tell you, he is about as shifty and standoffish as they come in that very confrontational setting. If he could somehow make his face disappear inside his head in those moments, he seems like he would, and nobody can be sure it’s for lack of trying. For his sake, he does not have a smiling Alain Vigneault radiating confidence across the ice, that knowing grin taking command of the rink. For his sake, disposition does not mean a chessmaster knows their pieces any less.

It would be foolish to assume Sutter’s shiftiness reflects a weak or indecisive leader; possibly the strongest coaching mind of the fabled Sutter family, he has deftly shuffled a young defensive corps, and deploys a forward unit that can hang with any team in the league. Granted an embarrassment of riches by Dean Lombardi, he’s wasted none of it…despite a low shooting percentage that dogged the team all year, and despite another middling season from expensive goaltender Jonathan Quick. Then, in a late season master stroke, Lombardi gave him Marian Gaborik, and we know the rest.

Vigneault rolled into Madison Square Garden last year after a bizarre organizational meltdown in Vancouver that saw the unceremonious exits of Cory Schneider, Vigneault, and Roberto Luongo. Like Sutter, a hockey lifer that never was able to carve out a great career as a player, Vigneault has been a quick study of hockey analytics. It was under his leadership that the Sedins fully realized Brian Burke’s gamble when Burke rolled the dice on them in 1999 NHL Draft. Using an extremely offensive-focused deployment of the Sedins, and saddling 2nd and 3rd-line forwards with the tougher minutes, he opened the Sedins up to the best offensive seasons of their careers, and developed a great, complementary set of top-9 forwards. Bringing this strategy over to the Big Apple, Vigneault took the same Rangers players, still bruised from John Tortorella’s reign, and made them into a better team.

Vigneault’s affable personality (known for his easy laugh, he had to hide his face when opposing forward Vern Fiddler did an accurate mock of Canucks defensemen Kevin Bieksa), like Sutter’s mumbling, is deceptive. Questions of strategy solicit lengthy, nearly academic responses from Vigneault, and his on-ice directives are typically more prescriptive than your average head coach banter.

If you look down the line of player benches, you see a rippling tapestry of attitudes, mannerisms, consequences…players hanging over the boards, as if the wall is the only thing keeping them from bursting into the course of play; chatterers, rocking back-and-forth as they engage and disengage from the actions and players on the ice; and players in the zone, or so exhausted they share the pose of morose, intense silence as their shoulders rise and fall. Above the tapestry of the Kings and Rangers these next two weeks, it will be Vigneault and Sutter, the lion and the lamb, pacing and planning in the most exciting games on Earth.


 

Prelude to a Literary Stanley Cup: A New Era

Picture by “Nichole”, via Wikimedia Commons; altered by author


New York, Los Angeles. The perpetual, uniquely American struggle between East and West is playing itself out in a worldly Stanley Cup microcosm. Just as Mad Men’s Don Draper plays out the fundamental differences of the two places on TV screens all over the United States, we’re watching the emergence of a new league that has only recently thawed the winter of the Gretzky Era.

And what do I mean of that – the “Gretzky Era?” It’s the belief that that goal-scoring is something we can re-capture, and that part of the reason it worked in the first place was because Dave Semenko was there to secure it. We have been living those two lies ever since; born from the Broad Street Bullies, carried tightly in our fists like a shoe in Milbury’s hand, there is not telling how much great hockey we cheated ourselves from by sneering at the European possession-style, or ignoring the fact that the pugnacious Flyers and Bruins teams were great possession teams themselves.

We almost knew a different way, when Jagr, Fedorov, Sundin, and Bure entered the league, and Mogilny and Selanne scored 76 goals, and Sergei Zubov led a Stanley Cup-winning team – from New York – in scoring. Soviets were no longer Soviets, Europeans were no longer Europeans, and maybe these kids could change the way we play the game.

Instead, the old mantra crept back in, and in seasons where the defense could be no more stifling, somehow possession and offensive styles drew ire from the old guard that felt it was abandoning defense, or physicality, or some ghostly, team-first principles that they believed had always been there. When fresh data began to tell us new and exciting things about the game, past and present, it was criticized as infantile and ignorant, the new chastised by the old in the same way it always has been.

As with any valuable set of principles, the evidence has since forced people to take notice. In the last 7 Stanley Cup Finals, 11 of the 14 teams carried a noticeable perception of the importance of possession, and demonstrated an understanding of analytics. Nearly half the league now takes it seriously, and by the end of the decade it’s likely that all teams will have analytics departments.

For now, though, the Gretzky Era still haunts these halls. Dean Lombardi and his fascinating construction of the Kings was still overruled in selecting the American Olympic team. Glenn Sather, now GM of the New York Rangers, still has more weight in the room than sharp-minded Alain Vigneault, Rangers head coach and zone-start virtuoso. But they are both there, in this league, at this time, like Corsi and Extra Skater on the same channels as Don Cherry.

There is some sweet victory in this, no less rewarding than the victories that brought us Bure, Mogilny, Zubov. Surely we saw the value of good possession hockey in some of the most exciting games in recent memory, between the Kings and Blackhawks in this year’s Western Conference Finals. Each team disrupting one another’s control, weaving extraordinary passing sequences and picking each other apart in a masterful chess match. Was Brandon Saad’s cut-back and feed to Michal Handzus, who had just been shielded by an overlap with Patrick Kane, not one of the most beautiful game-winning plays you had ever seen? Surely anything that could break a 37-year old, defensive-minded center into a 1-on-1 with the goaltender is amazing.

And just as the Grezky Era lingers, we should feel some vindication in that older victory that brought us European hockey. In what other world would we be blessed to watch Kopitar, Gaborik, Voynov battle Hagelin, Zuccarello, Lundqvist? Alongside Carter, Williams, Martinez, Mike Richards…versus McDonagh, St. Louis, Brad Richards, Nash? As much as you try, you cannot hold back the world – and here we are, looking over the edge, into something new, something better, something more like “hockey” than we’ve ever had before.


 

2pS% to Outscoring in Two Periods, 1952 through 2014: Inklings of the Grand Experiment

Taking individual games back to 1952, and arranging them progressively from the lowest 2pS% to the highest, and setting a rolling 100-game average of the 2pS% and corresponding 2pGF% through those 45,000+ games. This is what you get.

Welp, I’ve officially completed the game data for 60 years of NHL games, and now it’s time to tinker. Above, I’ve taken the period-by-period shot results from over 45,000 games, arranged the 2pS% progressively, and ran the 100-game averages of the 2pS% figures and their corresponding Goals-For% in two periods for those same games.

What’s interesting to me about this, outside of the obvious decent relationship between 2pS% and outscoring, is the difference in range between shot percentages and goals-for. The goals-for range follows the general upper and lower ends that you would see in winning percentages; shots go beyond that range by about 12-15% on either end. That alone suggests that shooting talent and shot quality exist, and could very well have existed in more substantive amounts in the past (though certainly not to the point of eliciting results 12-15% beyond expectation). To a degree, this should make sense; in a non-capped league with weak player representation, some teams were able to control and develop their talent. In some cases, teams were able to monopolize up-and-coming regional talent. No team could easily escape the variability of goaltender performance, but they could maintain a talented shooter base.

Really, this is just a glimpse of the potential with this dataset. More to come.

Stabilization of Player On-Ice SV%, Last 5 Years

As you gradually ramp up the minimum 5v5 Close TOI for players, their On-Ice SV% pulls toward the mean pretty heavily.

So, the Bruins beat the odds and beat themselves – it’s time for me to junk the bracket and mess around again. If you want to know why my bracket fell apart, as did yours and approximately 65-75% of the others’ after 2 rounds, please please read this.

Though I don’t normally agree with David Johnson, he does have the chops to put together a pretty handy website. Using his stats.hockeyanalysis.com, I decided to run a quick study for the sake of a discussion among friends. I wanted to see how player on-ice SV% stabilizes across the population the last 5 years, by progressively removing players that failed to meet total TOI benchmarks (in 5v5 Close). I then averaged the SV% of the top and bottom 10 players, which is admittedly a ramshackle approach, but I was more interested in the signal as we went above and beyond a years’ TOI (~800 – 1000 mins) anyway.

Essentially, what this is suggesting is a range for on-ice SV%, and it’s pretty clear that it regresses heavily to a range from 90 to 94%. Assuming this is a fair representation of the league, we can also add some other inferences: a.) goaltender talent, expressed as SV%, holds a range of roughly 90.5 to 91.5%, and b.) opposing shooting talent, expressed as Sh% will range from roughly 8 to 11%. So if the player population holds a range of 4% in on-ice SV%, and you know for certain that goaltender talent can be variable from year-to-year but should be expected in a 1% range, and you also know that opposition shooting talent can be variable from year-to-year but should be expected in a 3% range, just how much wiggle room do you give to a player influencing their goaltender’s SV%? And just as importantly, how do you nail that down as a talent if you basically have to go beyond a year before that settles? Then, you can have different goaltenders, different player usage, and if you buy into players playing an important role in on-ice SV% you probably also consider the teammates and shot quality important, which presumably would also change from year-to-year and system-to-system.

You can live by the sword of “Corsi doesn’t tell the whole story,” but if you want to make a statistical argument and consider all those variables important to the equation, you are going to die by that sword.

2014 Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions: Tough to Pick Against Boston

Using a combination of FenClose, recent trends in FenClose, PDO, and goalie assessment, I’m going to put this out there.

Image

It’s worth pointing out, initially, that any playoff prediction should be taken with an enormous grain of salt. TL;DR version: you can win a playoff series with a 57% win percentage, which is barely enough to make the playoffs in the first place, and we all know that 4-7 game samples are still too small to develop sound predictions. This also means that small of a sample can potentially be misleading about a team’s talent and its comparison to other teams.

Anyway, I like what the Blue Jackets have done this year, and I do think that Sergei Bobrovsky is a legitimate talent, so that improves their odds against a Penguins team that has been gradually worsening in the possession game as the season wore on. The West is going to have some colossal matchups right out of the gates; I went with the Blackhawks primarily because even though their goaltending is a bit shaky, they are strong possession-wise and they’ve only improved in the latter half of the season. Boston gets the edge in the Finals because they have the same season story as the Blackhawks, only their improvement is much more substantial. Claude Julien has really figured out his roster, Tuukka Rask is a reliable goaltender, and I truly think Patrice Bergeron has supplanted Pavel Datsyuk as the best player in the world.

Predictions are about probability, odds, and a bit of intuition, and it seems obvious to pick the Presidents’ Trophy winner but the Boston Bruins are worthy of the award and (in my mind) the best probability to win the Cup.