Posts Tagged ‘ hockey

The Bruins – Canucks Series

It was great watching Boston battle back to win these Stanley Cup Finals after losing close games in Vancouver and enduring a lot of provocation from a Cancuks’ team prone to cheap-shotting and embellishing. But I have to admit, I’m stunned at the result. Watching the first two games, and having seen the Hawks – Canucks series in the first round, it seemed clear as crystal that the Canucks were a better, fitter team. Boston was very good, and goalie Tim Thomas could produce miracles in net, but it was telling to me that when the Canucks got control of the puck, there was almost no stopping them. The Canucks lost this series by abandoning the game that made them the best team in hockey.

Vancouver is a team with a ton offensive weapons, good skaters, and a pair of stingy goalies (although Luongo is prone to astonishing collapses). They racked up 3rd period and overtime wins against Boston because they had more staying power and could continue to play a fast, dynamic game long after Boston had worn themselves out by trying to keep up and pressure Roberto Luongo. When their top-scorers were out of the game, Vancouver’s fourth-line players could frustrated the Bruins by playing keep-away, and disrupting Boston’s attempts at getting an offensive attack set-up. Boston’s top lines would have to rest just as the Canucks sent their best players back out.  That was a winning formula.

Unfortunately, there was another side to the Canucks, what Trib columnist Steve Rosenbloom calls the “cheap and gutless Canucks.” The Canucks could skate around their opposition, but they repeatedly chose to mix it up. Raffi Torres would finish hard checks on near-defenseless players. Alex Burrows taunted and bit Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, and the officials didn’t see it and the league didn’t do anything about it. Aaron Rome crushed Nate Horton with a blind-side, open-ice hit well away from the play.

These were bad, needless provocations. They were opportunistic and retaliation was slow to come, but Vancouver was letting the series descend into a slugging match, and that is the last place they should have wanted to go against the Bruins. And they should have realized that officials tend to let hockey teams play the game of their choosing.

This is one of the things I find truly fascinating about hockey. It is a sport of negotiated violence, perhaps because there are so many gray areas, so much that can be left to interpretation. Some hits are obviously clean or illegal, but a lot of them could go either way. In general, the officials seem to exist to keep the game at a level both teams are comfortably playing at. Some teams get into fistfights and the officials will let them go at it, but other teams avoid brawling and officials generally respect their wishes, penalizing opponents who attempt to start something. Hitting seems to fit this mold as well. Officials seem to give hitting teams less leeway with their checks when they are going after a skating team that’s more interested in playing the puck than the body. Players know that rules enforcement does not exist in a vacuum, and that’s why they put so much effort into persuading officials to make calls. It’s all part of a continuing effort to define the boundaries of the acceptable for a given game. The process is even more elaborate within a series, where each game carries baggage from its predecessors.

So back to the Canucks, then. Torres, Burrows, and finally Rome gave away all the protection and sympathy the officials might have extended them and their teammates. Burrows never got any calls to go his way after biting Bergeron, and he made it worse by blatantly embellishing in an attempt to draw penalties. Rome’s hit basically cemented Vancouver’s reputation as series villains. Together, they had successfully painted a target on the backs of every one of their teammates. Officials, who had missed some important calls early in the series, decided to let Boston balance the accounts. By the start of Game Six, it was open season on the ice.

The Canucks were in a street-fight along the boards when what they really needed was room to skate and the confidence to take passes and play the puck. The Sedins had never had the impact on these playoffs that they were supposed to, but they completely checked-out of the series once it got too brutal. You could see, in game seven, Canucks turning as they approached the puck, expecting to get hit, rather than playing it. Quarter-second hesitations, players stopping short or slowing down… they were not the same team they’d been in Games One and Two. They were not playing their game, the one that left opponents winded and demoralized late in the game.

A few Canucks players changed the tone of the series, but despite Boston’s victory, I’m not sure I’m entirely happy. Game Six was a melee that saw one Canuck, Mason Raymond, taken out of the game fractured vertebrae. I don’t think the hit was dirty, and I certainly don’t think Boychuck added anything extra to his hit in an attempt to hurt Mason. It was an awkward play. But in hockey as in football, the sport will only get safer when players themselves start passing on opportunities to drop the hammer on one another. Officials play a part in that process by demonstrating they will protect players and punish excesses. In this series, the officials seemed to back away slowly and let the enforcers go to work. That’s how escalation happens, and that’s when people start getting carted off the ice. By not taking a firmer hand early in the series, NHL officials left every player more exposed to injury.

My Life as a Hockey Star

Defense is where I feel the most comfortable. My passing and shooting skills leave a lot to be desired, and I can feel this entire Florida crowd holding its breath whenever I go charging across the blue line. Even I get jittery when my lane gets shut down and I have to dump the puck to one of my teammates. It’s a 50 / 50 chance of a turnover.

It makes sense. Offensive controls in EA’s NHL 11 are much more nuanced. Defense is all about positional play and reading the offense. I don’t have to be a master with the controls to break up a play, because I’m already ahead of it.

So on defense, I’m the guy who comes slicing across the ice to intercept a shot on goal, then destroys the poor wing that is stupid enough to try and recover the puck. There’s a tooth-rattling crunch as he’s blasted into the boards, and the crowd goes berserk as the Panthers go hurtling toward the goal with 3 on 2 while the Flames try to figure out what the hell just happened.

I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this game. Career mode is neat because you basically role-play as an NHL player, starting with the end of your semi-pro career and then transitioning to the big time. You gain experience points based on your performance, and you use those experience points to upgrade your player. My guy is becoming a little more physical, and little tougher, and is working on his puck control. But while he can be upgraded, I can’t.

Which is why I’m not really ready for the other parts of this game. I have no idea how to play the other positions, so the championship mode is totally beyond my skill. Every time a new player gets the puck, you get control of that guy. I can play left wing, but I can’t flip between the wing, the center, to the other wing in the space of five seconds.

Nor am I ready to tackle the challenge of being a GM, and that brings up my major problem with the EA sports games. They provide almost no assistance to the learner, as nearly as I can tell. You’ve either been with these series since the PlayStation 2, or you’re going to spend a lot of time floundering. The interface is anything but intuitive, and there is an awful lot of presumed knowledge both when it comes to position play and team management.

Admittedly, I should know the sport better. Were I a devoted hockey fan, NHL 11 is probably more self-explanatory. But there are some things I understand perfectly well that the game gives me no real opportunities to practice. I understand what I want to do on offense, but I’m having trouble connecting the action of the right thumbstick on my controller to what my on-screen player is doing with his stick. I need a better explanation, but neither NHL 11′s thin tutorials nor its pamphlet-sized manual provide much insight.

That said, something like career mode goes a long way to making up for the weak tutorial tools. Because I’m being forced to integrate myself into an offense, I’m learning how to help construct a play. When my player runs out of energy and goes to the bench, I watch from the sidelines as the computer players run the game. I pay attention to the kind of plays where I’m weak. Between the coach’s feedback (“Watch the turnovers” is a popular admonition) and the commentary, I am getting up to speed and having a great time doing it.

And that’s the key to getting people into a game, I think. There has to be a hook, something that establishes the game’s appeal without requiring that you necessarily grasp everything that contributes to it. Career mode in NHL does exactly that, by tapping into the most basic fantasy of anyone who watches a good hockey game: playing at the highest level with an elite group of pros, breaking and making the big plays.