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After his Canucks dropped a 4--3 decision at San Jose last Friday in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, forward Henrik Sedin attributed the loss to Vancouver's dismal showing in the first period, when the Sharks zoomed to a 3--0 lead. "Well, they outshot us 15--1 [in the first 14:53], scored three times and didn't let us have the puck for 12 minutes," he said. "When you keep the puck to yourself, that's a good formula for success."
As the outcomes of the Stanley Cup playoff games continue to prove, puck possession is what matters most these days—even if there is no tidy way to quantify what it means. Football has quarterback rating, basketball has offensive efficiency and baseball minds meditate on imposing acronyms like BABIP, VORP and WAR. But for the one pro league that has Sabres, the NHL is short on mainstream sabermetrics.
"It's funny because our game looks at numbers just like other games," says Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, "but as much value as we assign to puck possession and how essential it is to winning, we really don't have a numerical value for it that everyone can agree on. Remember when [A's general manager] Billy Beane started emphasizing on-base percentage in baseball? It wasn't just a curious number; it changed the game. It redefined the type of player you wanted on your team. It's coming in hockey; we just have to figure out how."
In the meantime teams will believe that simply holding the puck will soon have them hoisting the Cup. In evaluating the showdown with the Canucks, San Jose forward Ryane Clowe says, "The greatest strength of both teams is that they really know how to manage the puck. Same with Boston and Tampa [in the Eastern Conference finals]. Whatever scheme, whatever type of game you play, any team that gets this far has to."
TODAY'S HOCKEY cognoscenti refer almost constantly to the Red Wings teams of the late 1990s—stocked with swift, puckhandling European players—as the template for today's elite puck-possession teams. The hallmarks of Detroit's style have endured: win a high percentage of face-offs; carry pucks into the offensive zone when possible, but turn and regroup if necessary; employ mobile defensemen capable of joining the rush; increase takeaways; cut down on turnovers.
"When Scotty Bowman put five Russians on the ice at once, they did things differently," says Holland, who took over from Jim Devellano as Detroit's G.M. in 1997. "If they hit a wall at the blue line, they didn't shoot the puck around the boards; they circled and tried it again, but they didn't give up the puck. In the offensive zone they cycled and didn't give up the puck. They had skill and balance, and they frustrated people. Soon our energy players, our grind lines, they could hold on to it too. You see that today. In the old days you banged the other team's D; today you make them chase you so they're too pooped to make a play at the other end."
Sharks captain Joe Thornton, among the game's best passers—as well as, at 6'4" and 230 pounds, one of its toughest skaters to knock off the puck—acknowledges the Wings' influence on his own play. "My game totally changed," says Thornton, who entered the league as a Bruin in 1997 with a dump-and-chase mandate. "Watch this series [with Vancouver]. We do a middle drive, where the center drives to the net [with the puck]. I never used to do that. I'd be in the corner."
The crackdown on obstruction fouls after the 2004--05 lockout further rewarded aggressive offensive play. "And it's kept games interesting," says San Jose G.M. Doug Wilson. "Teams used to sit on leads. Now because defensemen can't slow down the other team without getting penalized, if you go into defend mode too soon, you're more likely to lose the lead." Take Tampa Bay's 5--3 home win over Boston in Game 4 last Saturday, which squared the series at 2-all: The Lightning scored five unanswered goals in the game's final 34 minutes after falling behind 3--0.
Says Tampa G.M. Steve Yzerman, "Without the red line and with relaxed rules on icing, the puck can go from behind your net into the other team's end in an instant, so there's not much playing in the neutral zone anymore. The more you have the puck, the more you can attack and generate offense. That's the way I believe you defend a lead now: attack and make the other team defend."
Possession starts with winning face-offs. "If you establish control," says Thornton, "the other team is on its heels for maybe 30 seconds, almost a whole shift, because of one draw." The face-off is the rare ingredient in hockey's possession stew that actually comes with its own numbers. The Canucks and the Sharks ranked one-two in face-off percentage during the regular season, supporting the mantra, Own the dot, own the game. Some coaches would widen that maxim to include owning the whole face-off circle. After the Predators lost 40 of 66 draws to the Canucks in a 1--0 defeat in the opener of their second-round series on April 28, Nashville coach Barry Trotz called out his wingers as much as his centermen for the failure. The majority of face-offs—75% is Trotz's estimate—are not won cleanly and remain up for grabs in the circle after the initial clash of sticks. "How can you win," the coach asked, "if you never start with the puck?" At their next practice the Predators ran face-off drills for the majority of the session. Adequately chastened, Nashville won the face-off battle 51--38 in Game 2 and pulled out a 2--1 overtime win.