Hockey Talkie: Gretzky Playoffs, Ovie Expendable, Worlds Woes
[originally post for www.betonhockey.com on May 2, 2012]
A puck bucket full of hockey thoughts to tee up….
Four of the eight teams remaining in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs have direct ties to Wayne Gretzky – The Great One played 18 games with the St. Louis Blues in 1996, 234 games with the New York Rangers from 1996 – 1999, coached 4 seasons for the Phoenix Coyotes from 2005 – 2009, and played 539 games with the LA Kings from 1988-1996, captaining them to their only Stanley Cup Finals appearance in franchise history. Had the Edmonton Oilers not been laughingly awful yet again this past season and lived up to hype and expectations, this could have been an all-Gretzky playoffs. Gretzky was known to have been vocal about wanting to win just one more Stanley Cup before he finished his career – is it that far-fetched to think that if one of those teams manages to win the Cup this year (there’s currently a 50% chance of that happening), Wayne might find a way to sneak on the ice and hoist the grail one last time?
Speaking of the Los Angeles Kings, they’re beginning to draw a lot of similarities to the underdog 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens – both entered the playoffs as the eighth seed of their conference, both eliminated the President’s Trophy winner of that season in the first round (Montreal beat Washington, Los Angeles ousted Vancouver), and both had/are having unexpected success in the second round (Montreal eliminating Pittsburgh, LA currently mauling St. Louis). The main difference though, is that it took Montreal 7 games to win both of those series – it only took the Kings 5 in the first round, and they are in the driver’s seat with a 2-0 series lead now. Of course, Montreal was beat in the third round, and LA’s playoff fate is not yet written. Los Angeles’ main criticism heading into this year’s playoffs was their inability to score – coming off a series sweep over St. Louis most recently, and with three players in the NHL’s top 25 playoff scorers (Brown, Kopitar, Richards), that ailment seems to be cured. Their goaltender remains a standout, and they’re shown their toughness is not an issue either, mixing it up frequently in both series. While both the Habs and Kings teams look similar, LA looks to be well on their way to faring far better.
A moment of discussion about a frame from game 2 of the Rangers/Capitals series…. The score was 3-1 Rangers with roughly 8 minutes to play in game 2, at which point Washington took a Too Many Men penalty. Caps’ coach Dale Hunter elected to have Alex Ovechkin serve that penalty. The announcer was quick to point out that Ovie’s serving of the penalty was a strategic move in hopes of springing him on a breakaway at the conclusion of the infraction, which is all well and good. My counterpoint to that is that on every team and every level I’ve played on, the player that generally went over to serve a bench minor penalty was an “expendable” player – maybe a fourth line or injured player, or just someone who wasn’t getting a lot of ice time for whatever reason that game, and it certainly wasn’t by any means because our coach had a strong confidence in their breakaway ability. So from that standpoint, it looks like Ovechkin may simply have been chosen for removal from participation in the game for 2 minutes when their team needed 2 goals really badly in a short amount of time if they hoped to win the game.
The chance of that breakaway opportunity actually occurring is relatively slim and more of a crapshoot; a hail mary play that is too low percentage to gamble on when the puck could just as likely be in a precarious scoring chance against Washington when the penalty expires. It seems like a positive spin a coach might pose to a psychologically fragile player that needs positive reinforcement to perform well so they don’t conclude that they are the team’s expendable player while sitting alone for two minutes or less. By the strategic logic, Hunter should have put Matt Hendricks, Washington’s shootout goal leader through the regular season, in the box for the opportunity at an uncontested run to the net.
It’s not like Hunter is afraid to clip Ovie’s wings if he’s not performing either— Ovechkin played 21 minutes in game 2 and was a -1 in the loss, while in game 3 he only saw 13 minutes of play (the least he’s ever played in a single playoff game), and scored the game winning goal. So the query point I want to raise is this: do you think Ovechkin serving that bench minor penalty was a strategic move for a chance at a scoring chance, or was it a knock towards his expendability and/or need to improve from coach Dale Hunter?
Further, the Caps should maybe consider making Ovechkin a dman if he’s only going to score from the point now.
The 2012 World Hockey Championships are nearly underway in Finland/Sweden, and the world’s “best” will be competing to improve their world rankings – Canada currently sits at fifth in the world, and will be looking to improve on that seeding with a decent roster, but one that does not include names like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Roberto Luongo, Joe Thornton, and many other big name players that are available, but have elected not to compete for reasons of varying legitimacy. With many national rosters in the same boat, is it even fair to place as much value on this tournament as there is? Is there no way that this tournament can be played out at a different time of year where all of the world’s best hockey players can compete against each other to determine the world’s best? Or is it possible that the world’s best hockey players simply aren’t taking the tournament seriously enough when they should be jumping at the chance to wear their county’s colors on the international stage?