“Right here, stop it there,” Sheldon Keefe said. “This right here,” he said as he drew on the touch flatscreen TV. “This right here is what we wanna see. This is how you know we’ve got them.”
I was pausing/playing the video as he highlighted the opposing bench, which showed their players struggling to get off for a change while their teammates jumped over the boards – sometimes early, given the slow changers – to get fresh legs on the ice. They’d be left to scramble back to their D-zone where we were already headed, and that’s what Sheldon Keefe wanted to see.
He had wanted to see it then, in the American League, I imagine partially because he knew that was something Mike Babcock liked to see from his teams in the NHL. You’re aiming to put your opposition in a state of desperation like that, “diving into their own bench” as it was said, not even thinking about scoring, just trying not to get scored on.
The Lightning have looked like that at times in the recent past, most notably in overtime of Round 1 (Game 6) versus the Maple Leafs, when Toronto took the play to Tampa only to have one good chance go the other way and end up in the back of their net.
In fairness to what happened to the Lightning Wednesday night against Colorado, that’s why they’re so upset about a missed Too Many Men call on the Avalanche’s OT winner – they’ve had success playing a rope-a-dope style given their great goaltending, and they still felt they could win that game. They’re justified in being upset, of course, because it was Too Many Men. Here’s a telling still from just after Kadri jumps on the ice, and you can see where the guy he’s changing for – Nathan MacKinnon - is at:
It’s not a particularly tight change and a few seconds later MacKinnon’s skates are still on the ice as Kadri makes his play and the puck enters the net:
So it’s Too Many Men, sure, and Tampa is allowed to be mad.
But what shouldn’t get obscured here, is that for the players, all you can do is play and try to win, and you can’t make the calls, too. What refs decide to flag and not flag is out of your control, but you do know that the better you play, the more breaks you get. It’s funny how that works.
Last season, the best team in the NHL was the Tampa Bay Lightning (without much argument), and they got a very similar break against the New York Islanders in the conference final. That missed Too Many Men call went their way, and yes, they were the play-driving team facing a group that was trying to rope-a-dope and win with goaltending and defending. When you’re the team diving into the bench, or the team struggling to make changes, you’re at the mercy of luck. One more thing – a bad bounce, a missed call, whatever - going against you can be what ends it.
Colorado wins Game 4 because they had the Lightning reeling, “diving into their bench.” The Bolts were a taped together group down to five D and what felt like five forwards who weren’t injured, and it showed. The minutes leading up to the missed Too Many Men moment showed the Avs putting Tampa on their heels while the exhausted Bolts players searched for oxygen and a seat. Three and a half minutes before the OT winner you’ve got Nikita Kucherov going “Who cares if they’ve got solid possession and I should be F1 steering them, I gotta get off.”
Colorado then rings one off the crossbar.
Two minutes before the winner you’ve got Brandon Hagel desperately diving to get a puck out, then staying on one knee for a few seconds before dragging himself to the Lightning bench. He had been on the rink for a hard fought 1:15.
Anthony Cirelli has to get off in that GIF too as the Avs regroup with speed and head back on the attack. Nothing comes of the rush, though, as the Tampa players who come on to the ice rush back hard.
Not long after, Alex Killorn recognizes he’s at the end of a 1:17 shift, and has to change rather than provide neutral zone pressure. The Avs regroup and attack again. He’s F1 in the neutral zone here, and changes while the play goes the other way.
This led to more possession from the Avs, which Vasilevskiy put an end to by mercifully catching and holding a shot. The following 1:38 was again all Avs, and the Bolts were exhausted. They just could not get off the rink, and were left metaphorically diving into their own bench to get “fresh” legs back out there. Their defencemen (Sergachev and McDonagh) never did manage a change. Again, you saw the image of Kadri getting out there well early on the MacKinnon change. It’s Too Many Men, Kadri has solid possession in the middle here with his teammate still on the ice.
Sergachev is so gassed he’s not able to get up and gap up as you’d want the D to do here. He’s got no speed to skate with Kadri as a result.
So when that one more thing goes wrong for Tampa – in this case, the refs missing a call – it’s too much, simply because the Avs' dominance have made it too much. That call is the straw that broke the camel's back, but there were already a boatload of straws there first, which Colorado placed. So the Lightning can rightfully be upset about it – and geez, Jon Cooper had an agonizing post-game presser that demonstrated their feelings - but the Avs also deserve to be praised for their outright overtime dominance that put the Bolts in that spot.
Look at Kucherov and Palat chasing the play back to the Tampa zone as it ends.
The desperation changes from Cirelli and Killorn put them there.
I’ve heard all the arguments.
“Changes like Kadri’s happen all the time.” Not where a player gets immediate possession and makes a play while his changing teammate is still on the ice, they don’t.
“Tampa has benefitted from this missed call in the past.” OK? Not sure how that furthers the conversation here.
“It’s not Too Many Men because—” stop. STOP. Kadri’s on well before MacKinnon is near the bench.
The Avs got a break, but calls get made and missed all throughout a hockey game, and the best a team can do is “make their own luck.” When you take the puck to the net, you might get lucky and see it go in, the way Cirelli and Maroon did in Game 3, even if you don’t perfectly execute your intended move. You made your own luck.
When you put your opposition on their heels and get them diving into the bench, and when you get a break from a missed call, you’ve made your own luck, too. The Avs were excellent, and have been excellent, and deserve to enjoy a win they earned.