Some people have said last season’s Canucks were very Zen in their “whistle to whistle” approach to playing. While the approach was universally praised during the regular season, it received some criticism during the rough, grinding playoffs, and came under serious scrutiny during the Cup Final, where the Canucks’ refusal to engage meant a lot of this.
What happened? The Canucks had a great thing going during the regular season — they’d make their opponents pay on the scoresheet, and if things happened after the whistle, so be it, because the league’s best power play would go to work. But in the playoffs, the grind took its toll, the injuries added up, and the calls just wouldn’t come. The Canucks were dominated by a more physical team. Clearly, the “between whistles” philosophy isn’t fit for playoff games, right?
Wrong. If anything, the Canucks need to renew their Zen-like focus to playing between whistles. What happened wasn’t that their philosophy failed to carry them, it’s that they lost faith in it and started cheating.
Recall, for a moment, the way the Canucks played when truly buying into the philosophy. They stopped arguing penalty calls. They didn’t retaliate for hits after the whistle. They didn’t bother to settle personal scores or get involved in the verbal exchanges. As a result, they won the President’s Trophy.
Once the playoffs started, though, the Canucks’ commitment to the philosophy of just playing the game was truly put to the test. Playoff series can get nasty, and it became harder and harder to avoid the odd comment or crosscheck. They ran into some tough goaltenders in the first two rounds and got frustrated. They let infraction after infraction gradually wear away the team’s poise.
Expecting calls all season when the other team initiated scrums or took cheap shots led to the Canucks’ trying harder to get them. Rather than being content to assume the refs would see it, Canucks players started calling attention to the cheap shots more and more. In other words, they started embellishing and straight-up diving. It started to get them calls for a while, too, but it immediately squandered all of the good will they had earned through their refusal to argue calls or initiate scrums.
The Canucks’ reputation got worse, and the calls diminished. As the calls diminished, the cheap shots increased, and so did the frustration of the Canucks. By the time the Finals came around, the referees were willing to let just about anything go, and the Bruins knew it and wisely took advantage of it.
The problem began, then, with the embellishing. The Canucks simply didn’t trust the referees enough, and that worked against them in the playoffs.
The frustration showed other ways, too. The Canucks were back to arguing calls, for instance. In the Sedin-Marchand incident, you can see Daniel with some unkind words for the referee. Yeah, the referee should have called Marchand for roughing, but waiting for the calls was only part of the philosophy. The point of playing whistle to whistle and ignoring the extracurricular activities was to actually ignore the extracurriculars, but the Canucks didn’t treat it that way. They acted like they were forfeiting half of the games — the half after the whistle. It’s one thing to stop participating in the rough stuff, it’s another to stop caring.
The Canucks started caring again. They felt cheated by the referees, and they let the Bruins and their shenanigans throw them off their game. They seemed to decide that if they were going to be physically bested after the whistle, they had to try harder during the game, which led to stupid hits like this one. Whether or not Aaron Rome deserved his suspension (he did), it’s clear his hit on Nathan Horton was a result of simply trying to engineer an opportunity to hit an opposing player. Rome isn’t a skill guy, and he’s not going to be thinking offense all the time, but late hits aren’t a defensive play, either — they’re just hits. A willingness to be physical at the right times is pivotal to any team’s playoff success, but an insistence on trying to be physical at the wrong times is, simply put, a distraction.
The last Stanley Cup Final was littered with distractions. In the first game, Alex Burrows was supposed to avoid getting under the skins of his opponents as much as before, but when Patrice Bergeron baited the hook in Game 1, Burrows couldn’t help but bite. It infuriated the Bruins — a team that uses anger as inspiration — and embarrassed the Canucks, and Burrows personally. The Canucks were on top of the world when that series started, and had they just stuck to their game plan, they might have been fine, but before things went poorly, before the calls went against them, before they had any reason to be frustrated, things like the Burrows bite showed they were already willing to throw their Zen philosophy out the window.
Burrows was embarrassed and responded by scoring two goals the next game, and that should have been it, but the Canucks had also abandoned another tenet of their philosophy — refusal to engage in the verbal back and forth. Maybe they got a little cute. Maybe the Bruins got a little mad. Maybe the whole thing got a little old. There’s no maybe about its becoming a distraction, and distractions hurt the Canucks.
I can follow with lots of clips of the ridiculousness that followed in the series, but do I need to remind everyone how badly the Canucks lost their composure during the series? The truth is, the Canucks made it to the Cup Final because they committed to focus, composure, and to leaving the extracurriculars to the less-talented teams. They then threw that entire commitment out the window and were reduced to the diving, fighting, biting team we all watched implode four times against a less-talented team. When they did that, they gave the Bruins a way to win.
Every other facet of the game in which the Canucks were dominated can be tracked down to lack of focus. The failing power-play? It’s generally agreed it became to predictable. Why did the most versatile power play in the league become so stagnant? Mental slips. The Canucks went through it on auto-pilot. If the team had gone into the Final with the same kind of mental acuity they showed during the regular season, they’d be able to change things up a little, the way they’d always been able to do in the past. Instead, they spent the whole power play being angry about the penalty that caused it.
Even the comments between games managed to garner some controversy. Luongo didn’t have a good game after that, and there’s a pretty easy explanation for that. Luongo has been called an enigma, which couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s inconsistent, but that doesn’t make him enigmatic like Alex Kovalev or the like. Unlike Kovalev, Luongo’s inconsistency follows a predictable pattern. When he’s in the zone, Luongo is, hands down, the best goaltender in the league. The problem is, he’s also one of the most distractable goaltenders in the league. A player like Luongo needs the kind of distraction-free philosophy the Canucks were exhibiting most of the season. When the team gets distracted, so does Luongo, and then bad things happen.
The folks saying that the Bruins exposed the weakness of the Canucks’ “whistle-to-whistle” approach to the game were absolutely correct, but have proposed the wrong solution. The approach is brilliant, but needs to be embraced whole-heartedly in order to be effective. If the Canucks could have just stuck to their plan for seven more games, they’d have hoisted the Stanley Cup. If they take anything from the Bruins series, it should be that without their Zen approach, they aren’t just beatable — they’ll go out of their way to beat themselves.
A Sad Thing Happened This Week…
…and there’s really nothing to add. I can’t go without acknowledging it, but given nothing to make light of, rage against, or correct in a condescending way, the best thing I can do is find something else to talk about…
Under Review: The Cup Finals
…so I’ll go back to talking about last June. A new Pass it to Bulis feature has emerged — Under Review, which reviews hockey movies. Interestingly enough, the first two movies reviewed, Youngblood and Score, have attempted to address one of the oldest conflicts in hockey — how important is fighting, and the physical aspect in general?
Obviously, guys like Martin St. Louis have answered the question of whether physicality needs to be a staple of a player’s game in order to succeed, but the jury seems to still be out when it comes to team dynamics. Can a team hoist the Cup without being generally nasty?
If not for the aforementioned loss of composure, the Canucks-Bruins series could have been a fight for hockey’s soul. One one side, a team dedicated to pugilistic methods of expression, on the other, a team dedicated to cutting that kind of stuff out of their game. Teams always seem to try to become more like the Cup winner every off-season, so the outcome of such a series could have drastically affected the way the league looked the next season.
Unfortunately, the series played out much like the plot of Youngblood. The Canucks tried to have it both ways, and tried to be better and nastier than the Bruins. Like Youngblood feeling the need to challenge his enforcer nemesis, the Canucks weren’t content to just beat their opponents on the scoresheet. And as Daniel pointed out in his review, in reality, when a skill guy challenges an enforcer, he doesn’t tend to win. The worst part of the whole thing is that many observers seem to have taken the Final as a referendum on skill-based hockey, and some teams are unnecessarily stocking up on tough guys.
I really, really, really hope that isn’t why Todd “Breakout McGainsthezone” Fedoruk was given a tryout contract.
Throwing My Name in the Hat
After all the silliness that’s gone on over the past couple years with the Phoenix Coyotes, it’s pretty clear the NHL has to find a buyer. When they initially bought the team, they stated it was supposed to be a temporary situation. Temporary has lasted longer than it should have.
What seems to be the driving force behind the NHL’s willingness or unwillingness to accept a buyer is that person’s dedication to keep the team where it is. It’s clearly more important than how much money a potential buyer has, or any demonstrated business acumen.
For that reason, I’m going to go ahead and make an offer. I’ve got $18 in my wallet. I’ll put that forth for the Phoenix Coyotes. I know it may not be much, and I may need help from the NHL in terms of paying all the expenses, but let’s be honest — the NHL is already footing the bill, and has been for years. What makes things most embarrassing is that they’re still the official owners.
Sure, I lack experience, business education, and funds, but it’s been a dream of mine to own an NHL team, and given my commitment to keep the team in Arizona (which I wholeheartedly swear I will do), I think this may be my chance. If you’re reading this, Bettman, please shoot me an email.
Tags: Blogs in which I offer my services to the NHL, featured, philosophy, reminiscing, Third Man In, Zen