The hardest thing to do in hockey is catch a pass properly. It is the last and most-neglected of the necessary skills. First you learn to skate; then shoot; then, much later, to look around and pass; and only then, to catch a pass. These are the stages of development and it sometimes feels like the Rangers haven’t reached the last stage. When they are on the powerplay, pucks bounce off their sticks, or over them—it takes a moment to recover, time is lost. Whereas the Senators’ top line, on offense, makes crisp passes which the players then corral and release again. It’s a matter of two feet, half a second, but in that half a second lies all the difference. That there should be such a gap in skill at this level—that a 180-pound rookie named Erik Karlsson can make veteran professional hockey players look stupid when they try to take the puck from him—is astonishing. It’s no wonder the Rangers spent the first game trying to take his head off. He was the best player on the ice.
The Rangers’ game is played behind the opposing net. The forwards throw the puck into the zone, then chase after it, hoping to frighten and intimidate the defensemen into a mistake. The defenseman, skating back for the puck where it’s sitting along the boards, knows he’s going to get hit. If he gets to the puck too quickly, he will get plastered into the boards; if he slows down too much to brace himself for the hit, the forward may steal the puck. In the end, more often, the forward and defenseman arrive at the same time, collide, both crash face-first into the boards, then go looking for the puck at their feet. Eventually someone comes out with it. If it’s the defenseman, he looks for an outlet pass up ice; if it’s the forward, he just throws it behind the net, where another forward will do battle with another defenseman, moving slowly with the puck along the boards. He will look momentarily to see if someone’s open; if not, he’ll throw the puck back behind the goal again, to another forward, and the whole thing will start over. This is called the “cycle.” It consists 80 percent of players hacking at the puck along the boards, where it’s pretty much invisible to everyone in the arena. But unless you can pass and catch passes like the Senators, it’s what you’re going to do, and eventually someone will come free, the puck will squirt out to the front of the net or find its way to the defenseman at the point, and a shot can be attempted. Half of these will be blocked before they even reach the net; of those that do reach the net, 90 percent will be stopped cold by the goalie, whose pads are too big.
Jagr along the boards is a sight. His reach is so long, and he has become so strong over the years, that he can hold the defenseman off with one hand like a father playing with his young son. “Not now,” says Jagr. “Jagr busy.”
But Jagr is old. How old? Four years ago, he was already too old; he played his final season for the Rangers looking slower and clumsier than a premier player at this level ought to look. For the first time since his rookie year, he averaged fewer than a point a game, and during the off-season the Rangers told him they wanted to move on without him. It’s not us, it’s you. This meant a new star or scorer to orient the team around, and also letting go of some of the Czechs Jagr always insisted on having as teammates, so he would be less lonely. (Jagr’s replacement was a broad-shouldered and much faster Slovak named Marian Gaborik.) So in 2008 Jagr retired and moved to Russia to play out his last years in a quieter, more pass-friendly, less punishing league. Also, as his friend Darius Kasparitis once said, Jagr likes Russia because you can park your car on the sidewalk.
In Russia he was touched by tragedy. A promising young player for Jagr’s team, the Siberian Omsk Avangard, just north of the Kazakh border, turned out to have a heart condition. The team doctors chose to let him play. One night, sitting on the bench next to Jagr after a shift (they were linemates), he had a massive heart attack; he died before they got him to the hospital. He was 19 years old.
Jagr is six-four, which makes him tall even now, in the much bigger NHL, but when he began he was uncommonly tall, and also skinny. Don Cherry disparaged him as a “figure skater.” Jagr’s game was subtle passes, indirections, wrist-shots—he did not like to mix it up in the corners. I never really saw him play until his second season with the Rangers, after the lockout. Even then Jagr was a different, older player from the one who’d had 149 points in 1995-96, the most ever by a right wing—he had grown into his body, was now one of the heavier players on the ice. Bigger, but still inelegant, his long torso always bent forward from his giant ass so he could reach the puck, he made feather-like passes that he threaded through legs and sticks. He had an uncanny ability to see—not just what was happening at that moment (hard enough when trying to control the puck), but what was going to happen in the future; he seemed to know what players were going to do before they themselves knew. He finished the season with 123 points, two shy of the scoring title. In the next two seasons his production declined, and then he was off to Russia, a retiree. I saw him play once in Moscow: it was the same Jagr, #68 on the Avangard, but he had slowed; guys would steal the puck from him, somewhat to their own surprise. To see him back in the NHL is like seeing a rare bird, soon to be extinct. In February he turned 40.
Goals in hockey are so rare as to be almost meaningless. Statisticians sometimes discount them—they don’t tell you anything, really, the sample size is too small. Only soccer has fewer goals. But they can come at any time.
Three identical plays: the left wing skating down the boards, a defenseman skating with him. The crowd is excited. But is it really dangerous? If the wing has blazing speed, he can head for the net, where his chances increase; but the defenseman is over six feet tall, and a good skater. No, the wing decides to shoot (maybe, like the rookie Chris Kreider in overtime against Ottawa in Game Six, he is simply too tired to skate any further). He raises his stick for a slapshot. This means more power but less accuracy, and also it will give the defenseman a chance to get his own stick in front of the shot. Nonetheless, a slap shot it is. Off it goes! More often than not, it sails wide of the net; the wing has tried to pick a corner, and missed; the puck bounces harmlessly off into the corner; or the defenseman deflects it with his stick, and it sails uselessly into the other corner. If it gets through, chances are very good that the goalie saves it. If he gives up a rebound, there is hope, but why would he do that? The goalie swallows the puck. The third option is that it’s a goal. It sneaks past the goalie’s pads somehow, or it whizzes over his shoulder, maybe after deflecting off the defensemen’s stick or skate, or it finds a way under his arm. Most of the time it’s not a goal, and you wonder why you ever thought it would be. But then again, sometimes it is. You keep watching.
And yet this, if it’s a goal, is a classic goal. Man skates, shoots, scores. More often the goal is a fluke, a junk goal, a garbage goal. Someone throws the puck at the net and it bounces off a stick, a leg, a divot in the ice, and skips over the goalie’s outstretched glove. The goal counts, but is it a real goal? The announcers think so. “Just get the puck on goal,” they intone the wisdom of the ancients. “It’s never a mistake.” And it’s not just a cover-up for the randomness of goals, this business of getting the puck to the net. You really should! In football, lack of success in the Red Zone leads to demoralization—it’s a bad omen, a sign that the tide is about to turn. In hockey, offensive zone pressure almost always eventually yields fruit—if not a goal, then a penalty from a tired defenseman. Then comes the powerplay, and even the Rangers can score on the powerplay.
So goals are not entirely random—except when they are. Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov takes a routine dump-in, handles it cleanly, sees a New Jersey forward skating toward him, for appearance’s sake more than anything—except Bryzgalov suddenly shoots the puck into the forward’s stick, causing it to bounce right back at the goal and through Bryzgalov’s legs, 2-1 Devils, who go on to win the game, 3-1, and the series. Flyers go home. Jagr goes home! The Devils advance. But the goal is bullshit. A fluke. An oddity.
Is hockey meaningless? Is life meaningless? Certainly the regular season is meaningless. The top team during the regular season—Vancouver—fell out of the playoffs in the first round. So did the #3 team, St. Louis. The #4 team, Pittsburgh? Gone. Of the top four, only the Rangers, who couldn’t hit a barn with a hockey puck if they were in it, remain.
I will not speak for the other sports—they should speak for themselves. But in hockey the new statistics are meaningless. Goals are still meaningful; assists are meaningful. +/- is very meaningful. Beyond that? Beyond that is the evidence of your eyes. What you see is true. Hockey is a series of tiny, discrete battles for the puck. You either win them or you lose them. You know it, as a player; so does the person watching the game. Do we love math, or sports? I love both math and sports. But separately.
Ovechkin is the oddest player going. You don’t realize just how odd until you watch an entire game. On highlight reels he is always scoring acrobatic goals—goals while flinging himself through the air, goals from his knees, goals from his back—but in actual games what you see is that he’s out of control. Ovechkin is graceless. His great rival, Sidney Crosby, when he skates, looks like he’s barely touching the ice—Crosby levitates. Ovechkin looks like he’s trying to dig a hole in it, like a dog flinging dirt in the backyard. He is out of control when he passes the puck, often just flinging it to the other side of the rink; and he’s out of control when he hurtles down the left wing toward the goal. But he’s also very fast and hard to stop. His speed creates space and time, and he has one of the best wrist-shots in hockey.
Ovechkin has been benched by various coaches at various points in his career, but this postseason has been something else entirely. The Capitals coach does not just occasionally bench Ovechkin if he’s misbehaved; he sits him as a matter of course, bringing him out on occasion when the Capitals really need a goal (or are on the powerplay). One observer has suggested that we are witnessing the birth of a new phenomenon—the offensive specialist, called in for special occasions, like the designated hitter or the pitcher who only throws to lefties in the eighth inning. Maybe this is strange for hockey, but modernity demands it. It’s interesting that an “old-school” coach is the one who pioneered it. Maybe what’s strange is that it took so long.
The announcers are good guys, more or less, but why are they so invested in authority? All this talk about playing “within the system”—Ovechkin’s great crime is that he refuses to. The announcers always take the side of the coaches. All the coaches are great coaches, according to the announcers, whereas the players are troublesome children who need to be controlled.
On the other hand, the fans always hate the coaches, thinking they could do better (the announcers are often former coaches; fans are mini-coaches, shadow coaches). Fans tend to take the side of the players. Coaches hate Ovechkin and fans love him. It’s the role of the announcers to speak for order, to speak for authority. Gives the fans something else to be angry about.
The league is undergoing a concussion epidemic. Players are missing not just a few games but entire seasons—Sidney Crosby, easily the best player of his generation, missed a season and a half. What other sport would tolerate this? And yet what can hockey do? The epidemic is the result of two things: one is the size and speed of the players, both of which keep increasing, playing on an ice surface that has remained the same size; and the other is the dramatic and sudden rise in medical attention to concussions, brought about (I assume) by the recent valuable media attention to the long-term affects of concussions on football players—specifically, brain trauma, early-onset Alzheimer’s, depression, and death.
What to do? I don’t know. The NFL has had some success in outlawing the kind of head-on-head hits that cause dramatic concussions (and broken necks), but they will not be able to do anything about the facemask-to-facemask hits that characterize every single play for the down linemen. In the long run, the NFL is doomed. The NHL does not have to be. Personally, I’d make the rink bigger; outlaw checking (but keep fighting); and for good measure I’d outlaw blocked shots. That’s right. Officials can distinguish between a puck that merely incidentally goes off a player’s skate into the goal, and one that is propelled goalward by a “distinct kicking motion”; they can do the same for blocked shots. But short of that, just expand the rink.
I have no idea what’s happening in the West. It appears be to some kind of exile to which players from the East are sent; they return angrier and faster and sometimes win the Stanley Cup. I guess the Phoenix Coyotes are the old Winnipeg Jets; the Los Angeles Kings meanwhile appear to be the 2008-2010 Philadelphia Flyers.
In the end the basic philosophical question is this: Can a team as profoundly untalented as the Rangers win the Stanley Cup? It seems the answer would have to be no. And yet so far they’ve beaten the more talented Senators and played the more talented Capitals to a stalemate. How did they do it? How does anyone do it? They must have scored more goals than the Senators. They dumped; they chased. They scrambled, threw the puck toward the goal, obstructed the view of the goalie. And their goalie was slightly better, which is no small thing in the desert of goals that is the playoffs.
Tonight is Game 7 against the Capitals. Someone has to win the game: it will definitely be the team that scores more goals. Beyond that? Will the team that won prove itself the better team? Will we be able to draw conclusions? No. And yes. The team that won will have been the better team by definition. But on another day, in another rink, things may have turned out differently. Which isn’t to say that they will.
If anyone knows anyone with tickets, please have them call me.