15 May 2007

Power outage

as published at SportsGrumblings.com

Hockey is defined as a sport - an athletic competition with participants in direct opposition to each other. This definition is incomplete, as incomplete as deriving the whys and hows of a game from the what of the simple final score. In hockey, the player is not only battling the opposition, they are battling themselves. No other sport turns as dramatically and drastically on a whim, a seemingly innocuous play, a bounce or whistle. And if "the tide" seems to be sweeping against you, in creeps a tendency to freeze - to overthink. And if you let your mind beat you, you will lose.

This Buffalo-Ottawa series has been a strange one, and one that is not fully told by looking at the final scores. Last week in a series preview I wrote:

…With a skilled and aggressive Ottawa defence, the Buffalo coaching staff simply must redefine their [team’s] approach on the power play or they will lose this series…

Little could I know how right that would be, as an 0-16 powerplay through three games is the single-biggest reason for Buffalo being on the verge of yet another heartbreaking end to a season. Nobody on either side of the fence could have predicted either team being up 3-0 at this point in the series, yet here sits Ottawa – one game away from their first trip to the Stanley Cup finals in the modern era, and with four tries to get it right. Taking it game-by-game:



Game 1: 5-2 Ottawa. Seemingly Senators domination, yes? Not so. The game's first two goals were scored by Ottawa on special teams before Buffalo stormed back to tie it, somewhat dominating the game at even-strength. The tie-breaking goal occurred midway through the third period, with two very late goals added on to pad the score. An early breakthrough on the powerplay for Buffalo could have easily changed the outcome, both by preventing the early Mike Fisher shorthanded goal and contributing just one of their own.


Game 2: 4-3 Ottawa, 2OT. By definition, this was the slimmest of victories and that with more than 40 minutes of extra time to decide it. A controversial disallowed goal for Thomas Vanek in the first angered Sabres' fans, as did a non-call on captain Daniel Alfredsson yet a last-second goal by Buffalo (assisted by a similar non-call on Brian Campbell) perhaps made the game appear closer than play indicated. After a dominant first period by Buffalo, the Senators took over the game for the second and third periods before the semi-miraculous Daniel Briere goal.


Game 3: 1-0 Ottawa. Again, a squeaker...on paper. Yet this time, the score lies again - to this viewer it was one of the most lopsided one-goal games in memory. And as faulty as memory can be, I also never recall seeing a power-play as anemic and pathetic as Buffalo's was in this game. It was not just the six powerplays without a tally (weak as that is) - it was the stunning path to such a number.

I defy someone to find a game where a team - at any level of hockey - had so little ability to even approach setting up a simple power play. The Sabres tried dumping the puck in…tried carrying it in…there was no success with either method. Normally reliable players such as Chris Drury played with obvious distress (zero shots on the night). Tim Connolly – whose late-season return many thought would revive a dull Buffalo powerplay- didn't exhibit his usual confidence with the puck, and turnovers were once again the meme for the talented Sabres. And although credit must be given to the Senators, the fault lies with Buffalo. For such an explosive team they had a poor powerplay all season, and it became worse in the postseason. Yet nothing could indicate the impending level of ineptitude shown over the past three games, culminating in Monday night's travesty.


In the end it really must come down to the mental game. The talent is there, in abundance. Even the lowest-of-the-low of the hockey world can set up a power play more than once or twice in nearly 12 minutes of 5-on-4 play. Call it the heavy weight of national expectations, or the burden of a title-starved region who once again will be teased with the promise of ultimate glory - bring out every phantom excuse - some or all may apply.

But unlike last season, this year the Buffalo Sabres don't have an on-ice excuse. They're fully healthy. They're loaded. They had home-ice advantage after ending with the best record in the regular season. What they don't appear to have is confidence, and in the truly dynamic sport of hockey if you lose your confidence - especially to a team every bit as talented as yours - you will have lost everything.

3 comments:

Tom L said...

RA,

It is, indeed, about confidence. That left the building the minute Alfie scored to make it 2 - 1 in Game 2. From that point forward doubt and fear became a way of life for them.

It's sad that it's come to this, but let's chalk it up to a lesson learned and now try and figure out what to do for next season.

ECF two years runnings is pretty damn good, in hindsight. 1 cup would be nicer, certainly.

Ta,

barry said...

What do you guys think
about 5on3 power plays?
Do you find them exciting? should there be more of them? Personally I can't stand them. The Sabres were a really fun team to watch for the past 2 seasons, with their mad dashes to the net and great passing. It so depressing seeing them in front of their net outnumbered 5 to 3 and
knowing the other team will probably score.Does anyone have any hard statistics about 5on3 pp? Like which teams have been given the most ,their goal percentage per 2 minutes of 5on3 pp during the season and playoffs And which refs have given most 5on3pp to which teams
especilly in tied or 1 goal games.This seems to be a dark area of hockey.I haven't been able to find any info or stats about 5on3 pp on the internet

Road Apples said...

Barry-

You can find tables of 5-on-3 stats here for the past 2 seasons.

I can see the argument against 5-on-3s - there isn't much excitement and a lot of luck is involved with the defensive team trying to prevent a goal.

However, I don't recall ever hearing anything resembling official discussions of altering the format. How about if you're shorthanded and you commit another penalty you get the 2 minutes tacked onto the end of the existing penalty, although the offending player has to sit there for the duration, and you cannot ice the puck?

-rob