Thursday, June 4, 2015

A beginner's guide to game one

Every day of the Stanley Cup finals brings at least one micro-controversy, those little issues that flare up sometime around mid-morning and cause a good day or two of fist-shaking before eventually being forgotten.

At one point yesterday, the issue of the moment was a beginner’s guide to hockey published by one of the local Tampa papers. The reaction was predictable: old-school diehards rolling their eyes at a city that has had a team for 22 years needing a refresher on icing, followed by more forgiving types scolding those diehards to be more welcoming to new fans.

Every sport’s fan base gets its back up over new fans, but it seems to be a specialty in the hockey world. After all, NHL fans have spent so many years being told what’s wrong with their sport that they’re instinctively defensive of their turf. But that approach does more harm than good, because hockey has plenty of room for new fans. There’s lots of space available on the bandwagon, and the more rookie fans who climb aboard, the better.

So in that spirit, let’s do this game story in the style of a beginner’s guide to NHL hockey. Consider it a peace offering to any new fans, in Tampa Bay or beyond, who are trying to figure out the rules of this fun but occasionally confusing game.

Rule no. 1: Hockey is a sport that is played by two teams. Or at least it’s supposed to be. As last night’s first period wore on, it began to seem as if the Blackhawks had missed that particular memo. The Lightning dominated, outpacing the Hawks in shot attempts and often spending extended periods in the Chicago zone.

That sort of thing isn’t news when it comes to the Lightning, a tremendously talented team that can often overwhelm lesser opposition. But it is new for the Blackhawks, who haven’t fallen into that lesser-opponent category in a long time. The Blackhawks are the bullies of the NHL postseason and have been for years, and while nobody can be expected to bring their best game every night, it was still stunning to see them chasing the play for as long as they were.

The early imbalance stoked an already enthusiastic Tampa Bay crowd, one that had just finished being blasted by a series of pregame scoreboard videos that ran for roughly as long as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Having endured that ordeal, they celebrated by cheering on the Lightning toward what quickly started to feel like an inevitable first goal.

Rule no. 2: In hockey, teams attempt to score a goal by directing the puck into their opponent’s net. This can be done in any number of ways; popular methods include the slap shot, the backhand, or the deflection. Or, if you’re Alex Killorn, all three things at once.

I’d strongly encourage you to click that link and watch Killorn’s first-period goal a few times, because I’m honestly not sure I can do it justice. Anton Stralman takes a shot from the point that’s almost comically unthreatening as it flutters toward the net like a knuckleball, headed well wide. And then, at least theoretically on purpose, Kilorn reaches back and swats the puck out of the air. The NHL’s official box score described it as a “tip-in,” which is technically the correct term for a shot that’s redirected but doesn’t seem quite adequate for a play that more closely resembled someone delivering a midflight 7-iron to a monarch butterfly.

The goal came less than five minutes in, and gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead. In today’s NHL, that tends to be important.

Rule no. 3: The winning team is the one that scores the most goals over the course of the game. In theory, that means that the lead can change hands several times, and comebacks are possible. In reality, not so much, and that’s especially true in games involving these two teams. The Blackhawks came into last night sporting a 9-1 record when scoring first in these playoffs; the Lightning were even better at a perfect 9-0. When they score first, they win, and Killorn’s circus act had just given them that first goal.

Tampa Bay fans spend much of each game chanting “Let’s Go Bolts.” If you happen to suffer from an acute inability to interpret chants at sporting events, that can end up sounding confusingly like “Let’s Go Home,” which would be far better, as if cocky Lightning fans are already chalking up the win and moving on to the next one. As the Lightning followed Killorn’s goal with more and more time in the Chicago zone, you started to wonder if that might be right.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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