Playoff Hockey

For college hockey lovers, this is the best weekend of the year. Twelve games, all televised on the ESPN family and in High Definition. The only thing better than playing in it is having a comfortable couch and being able to watch every minute.

Watching the games Friday and Saturday, I noticed one major trend standing out – the teams that fail to advance want the game to be easy instead of playing strong, honest hockey.

What does it mean to “want the game to be easy”?

  • Looking to score on skill plays and rushes – with an increased sense of urgency, teams backcheck better and play more responsibly in their own zone. Skill plays and rush goals are few and far between in the playoffs. Teams that look to generate all of their offense off the rush or by “out-skill-ing” teams are typically teams that go home early.
  • Reaching for pucks and engaging in stick battles – teams that want the game to be easy look to avoid contact and don’t want to put themselves in a position to get hurt. Stick play becomes a big part of their game and you see them reaching with hands while pulling away with bodies. More than one stick foul penalty typically indicates a team that is reaching and playing soft – hooks, trips, etc
  • Losing the net front – teams that want the game to be easy don’t own the net front. They set cursory screens and try to go to the net but don’t establish body position and plant themselves in the scoring area. Clear look, first shot goals in the playoffs are rarer than a parking spot in Boston. Playing against the best goalies in the country, you have to get to the net front.
  • Failed clears – blind clears, plays on the backhand, etc, the inability to get the puck out of your zone is killer in playoff hockey. Teams that play the right way make sure that they get pucks to the neutral zone at every opportunity. They are willing to take a hit to make a play.
  • Cheating hockey – what is cheating hockey? A little harder to quantify, but teams that look to cheat on 50/50 pucks or expected possession. Players and teams that play cheating hockey are hoping that their teammates make the play rather than digging in to help or staying in an appropriate support position. They look to put themselves in an advantageous position offensively rather than a smart defensive position.
  • Complaining to the officials – teams that want the game to be easy are usually the teams that you see complaining to the refs after every call. This doesn’t mean every coach who talks with the officials has a team that wants it to be easy, but it is the coaches and players who raise their arms and complain about every penalty called. Some players and teams are notorious for giving the refs and earful with every call – these teams are looking for the easy way out rather than playing honest hockey.

Am I generalizing here? Absolutely. Are there teams that win that play this way? Of course. Do teams play the right way and lose? All the time. Hockey is a game of statistically random events that lead to an outcome. 

These are observations from tournament games as well as NHL and College games throughout the season. All players and teams are guilty of doing these things from time to time. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance towards success. However, the teams that survive and advance in the NCAA Tournament are the teams that play hard, honest hockey and commit themselves to the cause. They finish checks, put themselves in harms way and do whatever it takes to win.

Ultimately, the question is do you want to look back and know you could have done more or know you did everything you could to help your team win a National Championship?

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The Math of College Hockey

How hard is it to play college hockey? Let’s do some very rough math.

Assumptions: On average, every college team is bringing in 7 new players per season (7 players in a class x 4 classes = 28 players). For the sake of these calculations, we are going to assume that all college hockey players come from the United States (we know this is not true, so the odds will be lower than seen here). We will also look at one age bracket to get a better feel for what a recruiting pool looks like.

In 2012-2013, USA Hockey had 28,961 registered members at the 17-18 age level (midget major). Let’s assume that this is our talent pool.

There are 59 Division I hockey programs. There are 74 Division III hockey programs. This gives us a total of 133 hockey teams.

Assuming a class of 7, there are 413 Division I freshmen and 518 Division III freshmen every year. A total of 931 freshmen across the country.

IF all players in college hockey came from the midget major level in 2012-13, the odds of playing Division I hockey stand at 1.42% and college hockey overall are 3.21%.

You could make the argument to double those numbers, as players spend two years at the midget major level. Doing that gives a player in any given birth year a 6.43% chance of playing college hockey and a 2.83% chance of playing Division I college hockey.

This fails to take into account the roughly 30,500 Canadians playing at the midget major level in any given year – essentially cutting the odds in half (Hockey Canada reports an overall registration level that is 1.0528 times larger than USA Hockey – I multiplied the USA Hockey 17-18 registration number by this variable). College hockey is also becoming increasingly diverse, with players from Europe growing in number every year.

The takeaway? It is extremely hard to be recruited to play college hockey. College hockey as a whole is a high level of play with very talented student-athletes. The pyramid only gets smaller as you go up. Appreciate the opportunity and enjoy the journey – you’re one of a select few who will ever get the chance.