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One hell of a hockey game

Monday 4/1/24

Watched a great hockey game yesterday afternoon and into the evening between Boston College--the top team in the country--and Quinnipiac, the defending national champions, with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line.

BC was chasing it the whole game before prevailing 5-4 in OT after tying it up with less than five minutes to go. They were down 2-0, then 3-2, then 4-3, so they never lead until the game ended. You might see that with a 1-0 or 2-1 final, but it's quite rare with a 5-4 score.

BC beat Michigan Tech 6-1 in their opening tournament game on Friday, but that was anyone's game through two periods and much closer than the final score indicated. Watching that I was thinking, "This is how you beat BC--the 1-3-1 neutral zone trap," which is what Tech was using.

What's the 1-3-1 trap? The defensive team leads with a single forechecker up high as the offensive team comes out of the zone--so it's like a neutral zone forechecker, rather than a player in deep near the goal line. Behind that forechecker will be the other two forwards and a defenseman spaced more or less equally apart in a line, with a single defenseman behind those three players.

The initial forechecker directs the puck carrier or the pass to one of the wings, then pursues in coverage as the two players closest in that group of three also pursue. The puck carrier is stifled in making a play either by advancing the puck himself or with a pass; he has to dump it in, but what's most important about that is he's not dumping it in on his terms. When you dump the puck in, you want to do it with as much purpose as possible. For example, you have a winger flying to the zone and you put it in his corner in rhythm so that he doesn't have to slow down at the blue line. That way you get on the forecheck, beat the defenseman to the puck, or have a better chance to create a turnover and gain possession.

The 1-3-1 creates a lot of neutral zone turnovers, destroys offensive flow, frustrates a team, and clogs up their attacking game. The dump-ins are ineffectual. They also create a lot of icings because the player with the puck might fail to gain the red line before the dump-in, resulting in a defensive zone face-off, which you don't want, and which becomes more of a problem when you're losing draws consistently, as BC was. What the team using the trap needs is a player who can retrieve the puck quickly and efficiently. The New Jersey Devils used to be so effective with this strategy because their goalie--this was before the league made rule changes as to where the goalie could go--Martin Brodeur acted as that puck retrievalist, if you will, for them, so that that last defenseman often wasn't required for this task.

Anyway, Quinnipiac is what is called a "heavy" team. They get a lead, and they grind you down by chipping the puck in, forechecking you, and getting the puck out of their end as quickly as possible, thanks in part to the 1-3-1 trap they use against a highly skilled team like a Boston College. You want the lead against them. They're a veteran team, they handle pressure well, and they strangle you to death. BC is one of the two youngest teams in the country. They have the most talent and players with big game experience--seven Eagles played in the World Juniors earlier this year--but freshmen are still freshmen, even if not all freshmen are close to equal.

BC scored a goal in the first that was waved off on account of a high stick. It was a clear high stick to me, but BC coach Greg Brown challenged the call, which I thought was a significant mistake. The goal wasn't going to be reversed--there wasn't enough video evidence to conclusively indicate it should have counted--and if you lose that challenge, you lose the one timeout you have in regulation. The Eagles could very well have needed that timeout in this game, with a young team and given how Quinnipiac plays. It was likely going to be a squeaker if they were to prevail. Brown predictably lost the challenge and his timeout; you still have one challenge left--personally, I think you should have none at all, and let's just play the game--but if you use that one and lose again, your team is accessed a two-minute minor penalty.

BC is a team where they can have nothing going on and are being stymied, but they have so much top-end skill that there's a single play, and in four or five very creative seconds, the puck is in the other team's net. That's the nature of high-end skill. And that's what happened, right around the time we were getting into "at what point do we pull the goalie" mode with less than five minutes to go. BC had nothing going on, and I mean nothing. They could not win a face-off, which was a big deal, because possession of the puck allowed Quinnipiac to put their neutral zone trap in motion. They'd gain the red line, dump it in, and make the Eagles go to work in almost every instance--save one--to no avail.

The neutral zone trap is typically employed when you're ahead. It doesn't have to be--Michigan Tech used it to open the game. It's a way for a less talented team to beat a more talented team. There's a psychological element to playing against the trap, too--it's dispiriting. Hockey is a game of flow and rhythm--for an offense, anyway. The trap, let us say, puts you off your stroke; again and again.

In the OT period, things opened up some, but you know there's a good chance there will be a scrum-y goal, or a bad angle shot, or a deflection--or two--that wins it, and BC's third line got their scrum in front of the net, some confusion on Quinnipiac's part, and a clearing attempt in which a puck slipped off a stick and made for the fatal, game-ending turnover. As I said, BC has all of this world class, future NHL talent, but the player who scored the goal could well have been playing in the final game of his career if BC lost.

And speaking of that lost timeout: You get a timeout for OT, and the Eagles needed it. Their all-freshman line couldn't get off the ice and had iced the puck twice, and you can't change your personnel after an icing. Had that happened in regulation, those players wouldn't have been unable to get a breather, and Quinnipiac might have won the draw--as they were doing seemingly every time--and created a scoring chance that could have won the game. These things matter.

That's a team win. Gutsy, hard. Doesn't get easier in the Frozen Four--not by a long shot--but that was a challenging match-up. And trap or no--most hockey people detest it, because it gluts up the game--that was a great hockey game; one of the better games, college or pro, I've seen in the last few years, where you had to really respect both teams for how they played.


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