Commentators love to talk about players buying into a team system. This is especially true in hockey, where an individual player may lift the overall quality of a team but won’t single-handedly win games night after night. Having players that can be coached and instructed, and are willing to work, makes a team stronger and more resilient. Lose Zach Parise to free agency and David Clarkson steps up with Patrik Elias feeding him pucks. Roster eight defenseman and you have a chance to bring them all along. Re-acquire Alexei Ponikarovsky and he looks like he never left.
Adam Larsson’s play on the game-winning goal in the Devils-Flyers game on February 15 exemplified every one of those tenets of system play. After being scratched for most of the late season last year, Larsson found himself in the 7 or 8 spot again this year. But some smarter and more reasoned play with the puck earned him a regular rotation, and then last night he showed his true horns: Puck is cleared along the glass, he gloves it down, snaps it through a forward’s legs toward a large-bore David Clarkson in the slot where it’s tipped in for the goal. Holding the blue line and keeping the puck in the zone, and snapping the puck with direction (rather than slapping it with force) turned a possible transition play into a scoring play. This is the kind of stuff you can teach, and if the players execute, you get consistent and consistently good results.
Want to see the flip side of this? Adam Oates had a miserable system for the Devils’ power play last year, and now that he’s aiming the Capital guns, they’re misfiring. Let your quality talent free lance within the bounds of a system, or else you spend most of the season looking up at the teams that do.
The Devils can knock off the Flyers, probably in six or seven games, because they have the right ingredients with the right blend at the right time.
1. They do the little things. Clarkson’s Game 2-winning goal doesn’t happen if Elias doesn’t poke-check the puck away from his man on the half-boards. It’s not on the scoresheet, but that play turned a Flyers breakout into a goal-scoring chance for the Devils. Elias, Greene and Henrique have been executing the small area game very well.
2. Bryzgalov lost the nerves contest. Bryz started looking shaky handling a puck in front of the net, and shortly after that Larsson went top shelf on him; a few bouncing pucks didn’t take Larsson off his game. I don’t think the Rock needs to filled with fans wearing bear masks or carrying boxes from Build-A-Bear Workshop (although that would be really funny), but keeping Bryzgalov thinking is to the Devils’ advantage. Philadelphia can’t put their other Bob-lehead in net; the Devils owned him this season.
3. Matching lines and hitting hard works. Briere was -3 in Game 2, mostly because Larsson and Volchenkov, along with Henrique’s line, were pounding him and Giroux with regularity. The fact that Wayne Simmonds went flat-line stupid at the end of Game 2 indicates that frustrations are high.
4. The fourth line has stepped up. When you can roll four lines your top two lines are more productive. And the Devils’ fourth line has been outstanding through the playoffs.
5. You add by subtracting a negative. Kovulchuk wasn’t at his regular performance level, and finally resolving his status make everyone else’s job more clear. The Devils have shown they can stick to a system and work through adversity.
What else do I want? I’d like Sherry Ross to stop making inane comments and then repeating them ad nauseum. I’d like the NBC commentators to listen to Doc Emrick to hear how play by play can flow beautifully without comments that sound like Ross cast-offs. I’d like to understand how an obstruction penalty can be called after the horn has sounded (end of Period 2, Game 2) when there’s no movement in on-going play with which to interfere. And I’d like Bryce Salvador to score another goal.