In a lot of sports, you hear close games refered to as “a chess match” and coaches as “tacticians.”
But for some reason, coaches in hockey don’t seem to get the credit that say, a football coach or baseball manager does. A hockey coach, the majority must suppose, is one that can give a good speech during intermission and maybe get the power play humming along above 22 percent. But other than that, you let the boys hop over the boards and your job is done until it’s prudent to use your one timeout.
But a coach’s job, as we saw tonight, is about far more than simply sitting on a one-minute team talk for most of a game, if not for its entirety. What Dan Bylsma did to Paul Maurice in tonight’s third period was nothing short of a master class in hockey stratagem.
Bylsma, of course, had the tactical advantage of a one-goal lead to begin the third, one that had been twice as big but was halved by a Chad Larose goal in the second, but still the Penguins persisted in their attack, as the offense, led by Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby (you were expecting Miro Satan?), was given all the freedom needed to swashbuckle its way into the Hurricanes’ territory with regularity and, if not produce more than a goal on 10 shots, threaten to do so with frightening consistency.
And this was where Bylsma’s first virtuoso performance came in. His ability to draw up a simple, and frankly a bit archaic, insertion breakout for the purposes of deep puck possession spelled the difference for the Penguin assault through the neutral zone and into full attack. Often, two Pittsburgh forwards would bunch up along the side of the puck-carrying defenseman and the troika would, in concert, efficiently shovel the puck to the lead man, as is required by the rule called “offside.”
Somehow, this eluded Maurice. The Penguins were almost never forced to take the puck wide and this insertion technique proved fruitful far more often than not. It also provided cover for any mishandling that is sure to come in any human pursuit, and indeed the overloaded wing often led to panicky decisions by Hurricanes defenders. Take, for example, the Matt Cullen delay of game minor that led to Pittsburgh’s third goal that ultimately stood up as the game-winner. So harried by the estimable penetration provided by Crosby, Bill Guerin and Sergei Gonchar (if I’m remembering correctly), that when he did finally secure the puck, he fretfully tried to offload it as though it were a live hand grenade. And 1:43 later, his mistake proved costly.
But more important than the offensive scheming (and really, even if he is a good coach, there isn’t much Bylsma has to do to ensure a successful offensive night beyond tapping Sid and Geno on the shoulder every few minutes), was that of the defensive tactics Pittsburgh employed throughout the game. Defense will always be underappreciated in hockey circles (outside those in and around Newark, New Jersey and St. Paul, Minnesota, I suppose) because a sweep check to dislodge the puck from an attacking player’s stick will never be as attractive as a ping-ponging 3-on-1 goal, nor have the beautiful ferocity of a stepped-into one-timer. But those that do care about the subtle art of winning by not allowing goals were given a wonderful treat tonight.
Stretching from Larose’s goal with 6:56 remaining in the second period to Matt Cullen’s weak wrister from 30 feet with 12:45 elapsed in the third, the Penguins defense held the Hurriances without a shot that Marc-Andre Fleury was tasked with stopping for 19 minutes and 41 seconds. And in that frame of time, which, it should be pointed out, is just 19 seconds short of being a full period’s worth of hockey, Carolina was only allowed to attempt eight shots. Instead, it had literally no set-up time in the attacking zone and was routinely flummoxed in its attempts to gain the zone via a three-wide breakout that found little success, unless Maurice files “soft dumps to facilitate line changes” as success.
Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Maurice has never heard this quote, surely. Because while the attempts to set up an attack, or even shuffle the puck around the perimeter for a few seconds were being turned aside through the Pittsburgh defense’s ability to “jump a route” (to use a football term) and get a stick in the passing lane and through aggressive hitting and backchecking. To wit: Carolina turned the puck over, be it through their own lack of care for the puck or through Pittsburgh’s means, far more in that near-20-minute span than did Pittsburgh for most of the latter two thirds of the game.
And here, many Carolina apologists (and we know who they are) will lodge complaints that the Hurricanes did eventually put seven shots on net in the third period, including an extra-attacker power play goal by Joe Corvo, and that much is true. However, while Hurricane fans contend that their dear team were nearly scuttled from the postseason by the injurious calls of the officials in the Bruins series, the opposite was true in the leadup to the team’s second goal. First, Brooks Orpik was whistled for a so-so elbowing call (it was an elbow only by the ticky-tack-iest of definitions) and second, Eric Staal was allowed to slash the stick from Fleury’s hands and then sweep it away from the crease in one surreptitious move that deserved a whistle just as much as Orpik’s infraction, if not moreso considering the gravity of the situation the fraudulent goal created.
However, here Maurice was bested by Blysma one last time in this game, but surely not for the series. The former used his one timeout (and what a great manager of that asset he is) to draw up an attack that produced two shots, one of which dangerously bounced in on Fleury, but only from the neutral zone.
If the series continues in this way, with the Penguins playing a superior brand of hockey simply through superior coaching, then Pittsburgh will continue to win the battles on special teams and those in the important moments. And this series will be over in a hurry.