The turning point of a hockey game is not always a goal or a penalty or a missed assignment. Sometimes it’s subtler than that. And often it’s subjective as to what actually constitutes a turning point.
In Saturday night’s home opener against Chicago, the Capitals fell into an early 2-0 hole. They got one back quickly on Matt Bradley’s first period goal and then evened the scored on Alex Ovechkin
’s first goal of the season at 5:07 of the second period. For the next 22 minutes or so of playing time both clubs vied for the upper hand that neither was able to grasp.
Washington iced the puck at 7:50 of the third period. With an offensive zone draw coming, Blackhawks coach Denis Savard elected to put the line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane on the ice. The Hawks won the ensuing draw, but 14 seconds later defenseman Brett Sopel’s shot left the ice surface. A television timeout followed, at 8:04.
After the TV break, Savard left the same five players on the ice. Washington’s Sergei Fedorov won the draw, and the next stoppage came at 8:46 on a Chicago icing call. With the Hawks having iced the puck, Savard had to leave his same five skaters on the ice. By this time, they had been out for 56 seconds consecutively, a bit longer than the averaged ideal shift, especially given the fact that the Hawks were in the third period of consecutive games in consecutive nights on the road.
With tired troops on the ice, Savard elected to exercise his timeout at this juncture to give his guys an extra 30 seconds to catch their breaths. It was a sound strategy, and Washington countered with the line of Donald Brashear, David Steckel and Matt Bradley. Steckel won the face-off and the Caps kept pressure on for another half-minute in the Hawks end before Chicago was able to clear the puck to neutral ice and get an overdue line change.
By the time the Hawks’ fivesome got to the bench, they’d been out for more than a minute, albeit with a couple of reasonably lengthy breaks in between.
“They were trying to get rest for their players,” observed Steckel after the game. “I think there was like eight minutes to go. I’m sure Bouds would have done the same thing as a strategy. But we wanted to make sure we kept them out there. The more that line is on the ice and getting tired, the more they are not going to be effective.”
Less than 90 seconds in game time (and another TV timeout) later, Savard put the same five-man group out for a neutral zone draw. This time, they stayed out for just 20 seconds.
At 12:26 of the third, Savard again went with the same five-man unit for an offensive zone draw. Boudreau countered with Ovechkin’s line and the defensive duo of Mike Green
and Shaone Morrisonn. The Caps were able to get off the ice after about 40-45 seconds, as were most of the Hawks. But Toews was out for more than a minute before he was replaced.
With just over five minutes remaining in regulation of a 2-2 game, Savard again sent out the Toews line. At this stage of the game, the Hawks were down to three lines. The fourth Chicago line had not been out together in more than 10 minutes. Boudreau countered with the line of Sergei Fedorov, Brooks Laich
and Alexander Semin
. It was the third different Washington line that the Toews line had faced in the previous few shifts.
Just after this group of players hit the ice, a stoppage in play occurred and a TV timeout followed. Again, all players on both sides had time to catch their breath, so both coaches kept the same group of players on the ice.
Chicago won the draw and was able to exit its zone and get the puck down the ice. But it was not able to change personnel. The Caps broke out of their end and began to rush the puck with Laich and Semin both driving the net. Soon, the puck was past Khabibulin and the goal line, and Washington held its first lead of the night at 3-2. The players had been out for about 40 seconds when the goal was scored.
Now trailing by a goal with 4:27 left, Savard no longer held a timeout to use in an attempt to rally his team and draw up a play that might have been able to even the score in the game’s waning seconds. No matter; Ovechkin iced it for Washington with an insurance goal three minutes after Laich’s tally.
We’ll never know if the game would have played out differently had Savard not used his 30-second timeout, or if he had been able to get the Toews line off the ice before his team was guilty of icing the puck.
“Thirty seconds, a lot of times if you’ve had a long shift, isn’t enough time to recover,” observed Boudreau afterwards. “It was a good move by Denis, but if we win the draw you get them running around. And instead of now going for 45 seconds, they’re tiring in 20. I think that’s what happened. We were able to get up and get that momentum and one of the lines followed it up and scored a goal. Sometimes it takes two or three lines to cause a goal, but only the people who scored the goal get the credit. I think this was one of those cases.”
It’s worth noting that Toews skated 24:03 on the night and Kane 21:49. Toews’ average shift was 53 seconds in length (about 8-13 seconds longer than the ideal shift) and Kane’s was 59 seconds. The Caps had several forwards whose average shifts were longer than those on Saturday night.
In their rookie seasons of 2007-08, Toews averaged 18:40 a night and 46 seconds a shift. Kane averaged 18:21 a night and 49 seconds a shift. Both players are used to playing more minutes at earlier levels of hockey, but now both were being asked to play a few more minutes than accustomed to on the second night of back-to-back road games at the start of the season. And both had skated more than 20 minutes a night earlier in the Hawks’ season opener against the Rangers in New York.
Last season, Toews skated 20 minutes in back-to-back games twice and Kane once. Neither player had done so since January. They’re young kids and they’ve got stamina, but now they’re playing against some of the best in the business. Toews was even with an assist against the Caps while Kane was pointless and a minus-3.
Maybe none of this mattered, and maybe it did. Either way, it’s interesting to dissect it a bit in retrospect.