Changing on the fly...
One of the most important and unique aspects of the game of hockey. Do it right and you never even notice that it happened, but do it wrong and... well... Predators fans are intimately familiar with the atrocities of bad line changes. (You knew what that link was before you even clicked it, didn't you?)
It's important to pick your moment to change on the fly carefully so that you don't leave your teammates unsupported. The first and third periods are easy enough to change on the fly as your bench is in your defensive zone, but during the second period? It sucks, man. That bench ain't anywhere near your zone, so almost every time you change without the help of a whistle, you present your opponent with an opportunity (small or large) for an odd man rush back into your zone.
This is what we are exploring today. Thankfully it was not against the Predators, because stupid mistakes like this really tick me off. Let's get started!
Nashville Goal: Craig Smith (5) from Mattias Ekholm (6)
Since we're talking about changing on the fly, here are the four unofficial rules (as a player), for changing on the fly:
- The player getting on the ice always has the right-of-way. Always.
- The player getting on the ice goes over the boards.
- The player getting off the ice goes in the door.
- The player getting off the ice makes sure both the puck and the play are clear of the bench before changing.
There is some flexibility with the second and third rules, but the first and fourth rules never change. The whole point of the first rule is that the player getting on the ice can join the play as quickly as possible, so you adjust the second and third rules as necessary to fit the first rule. The second and third rules exist to prevent players from getting jammed at the door or getting kicked in the face by a skate when they both try to go over the boards. The fourth rule prevents crappy line changes that lead to turnovers and/or potential too many men penalties.
I'll refer to these rules throughout the analysis.
We join the play after a Buffalo icing and a face off in their defensive end. The Predators changed during the whistle, but Buffalo could not. It's the very beginning of the period, so their players haven't been out there for too long (about 45 seconds at this point), but it's been long enough. They're ready for a change.
Buffalo dumps the puck and Johan Larsson and the two defensemen (not pictured) immediately go for a change. Larsson is committed to the change at this point, and Evander Kane is in the process of opening the gate and getting on the ice. The Predators get the puck around the boards and up to the half-wall. At this point, as you can see, it starts to get a little crowded. Five different players are trying to get control of the puck, which is being batted and smacked around and keeps hiding between skates and sticks and the boards. Craig Smith lurks patiently above the huddle, waiting for the puck.
Jack Eichel takes a whack at the puck, trying to hit it down the boards and deeper into the Preds' zone. It does not work. This is his first attempt.
This picture is a great example of adjusting the second and third rules of changing on the fly to fit the first rule. If Kane goes over the boards (per the rules), not only will he have to weave around the incoming Larsson, but he will also have to let an 'off duty' player come between him and the play he is trying to join. Not great. By going through the door, however, Kane can easily avoid both of those problems and quickly join the play. So he goes through the door. Simple as that!
Back to the picture: Ekholm flies past Wilson to jam at the puck and get it up the boards. He makes contact and the puck goes to Eichel. Eichel again tries to fling the puck back down the boards and again fails to get it deep into the zone. This is his second attempt. Kane and Larsson are in the midst of their change. Smith is still lurking.
Kane is officially on the ice and involved in the play. Larsson hauls his butt onto the bench in the nick of time, as Ekholm gets the puck up the boards. Fisher and Smith cautiously anticipate a breakout. Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen pinched a little to help his team gain control of the puck, but now he catches his skate on something (possibly Wilson's stick or skate?) and takes a tumble, leaving Kane and Eichel to deal with the puck on their own. The other defenseman, Josh Gorges, is out of frame behind them, so while their situation isn't optimal, they aren't exactly screwed.
Give it 4-5 frames.
Larsson fully makes it off the ice. Eichel decides it's his turn to clock out, despite the puck still being like, right freaking there. Rule Four, Jack... He's mentally clocked out, which is visible in how he keeps throwing the puck down the boards over and over like a robot, expecting a different result each time, instead of checking out his options (back to his defenseman, cross-ice to Brian Gionta [out of frame]). He's tired and he's a rookie - a talented rookie, but a rookie nonetheless - and rookies make rookie mistakes. So at this point, while he hasn't acted on it yet, he seems to have cemented his choice to get off the ice as soon as he can. Ryan O'Reilly is Eichel's replacement and he's standing at the boards ready to go if Eichel gets a good opportunity to change.
Fisher and Smith are very hopeful about their chances of a breakout. Eichel reaches back and snags the puck. He tries to dump the puck deep for the third time.
Eichel fails to dump the puck deep for the third time, and the puck ends up behind Kane's skate. Eichel has now decided to act on his desire to change. He isn't like physically-climbing-up-onto-the-bench committed to changing yet, but he's on his way. Look at that relaxed body language. He's finished. O'Reilly is still prepared to go, but he has to wait for Eichel to get all the way off the ice because both the puck and play are RIGHT FREAKING THERE and he doesn't want to get a penalty for too many men.
Fisher is maybe a tiiiny bit over-committed to transitioning out of the zone, but Smith is playing his position really well. He's in a great location and is prepared to jump into the play no matter which direction it goes.
Kane has no idea where the puck is. Four Preds and Ristolainen know exactly where it is (or have a really good idea) and they bum rush Kane. Eichel wants to get off the ice. He turns towards the bench and just stands there for a second before starting to lift a leg to climb over the boards. I assume he was waiting for Chad Johnson to open the door for him (Rule 3), but when it didn't open, Eichel figured he'd just go over the boards. If I'm Chad Johnson, I'm not planning on opening the door either. I'm not exactly expecting Eichel to get off the ice when the puck is still in play three feet away!
Eichel was out there for 50 seconds. I did some math with Eichel's average TOI and shifts per game and found out that his average shift is about 48 seconds. So he's right at the tail end of his shift, sure, but is it too much to ask that he take an extra two seconds and definitively dump the damn puck before he just gets off the ice? No? I didn't think so.
(Note: I missed showing the closed bench door in the frames I selected, but it's at the beginning of the video.)
O'Reilly realizes that Eichel is actively in the process of getting off the ice and swings his leg over the boards, but he can't get on the ice because Eichel didn't follow Rule 4. Ekholm sneaks the puck away from Kane's skate and suddenly has an absolute ****-ton of open ice in front of him because Jack Eichel is tired and not paying attention.
Eichel finally starts getting off the ice, but O'Reilly still has to wait. The Predators begin a hasty transition into the neutral zone.
Ekholm takes off. Fisher and Smith do the same. Ristolainen gets on his horse and freakin' GOES. Eichel officially gets all the way into the bench and O'Reilly can finally get on the ice. There's no way he's catching up to the fast-moving play, however.
Serious props to Ristolainen on his backcheck after getting caught in the offensive zone. I'm impressed. O'Reilly hits the ice
running skating. The Preds haul tail through the neutral zone.
Ristolainen attempts to take away the passing lane between Ekholm and Smith (which is smart because it would trap the puck on one side of the zone and offer fewer options), but Ekholm is able to get the puck to Smith before he can get there. Josh Gorges assesses the oncoming 3-ish-on-1 play and initially places himself between Fisher and Smith.
Gorges sees that Ristolainen has made it back into the zone and has the far side of the ice pretty well covered, so he hones in on Smith specifically. Smith has a clear shot at Ullmark (and Ullmark has a clear view of Smith), but he doesn't take the shot.
Smith waits and waits and waits and waits... And then Gorges slides between him and Ullmark, and Smith immediately releases his shot. I love how smart Craig Smith is as a player, and his ability to wait patiently for the play he wants is also really impressive. This play illustrates both of those characteristics so well. Smith just stands there and waits for Gorges to block Ullmark's line of vision, and then as soon as it happens, he snaps a ridiculous shot on net.
And into the far top corner, too. Gorgeous. Honey Badger just don't care.
Here it is one last time, for good measure.
Change your lines properly, ladies and gents and Eichel!