Hockey is a five-on-five game

Game five of the Maple Leafs vs. Lightning series felt like a long sip of water after a desert hike. We can all see what’s going on in those games: penalty shootouts are common, games are full of overlapping power plays, and the five-a-side minutes in that series were:

  1. 33:42
  2. 41:33
  3. 43:57
  4. 36:55
  5. 42:43

The games have felt like an early regular season as the year’s crackdown begins and everyone goes off for slashes, cross checks or faceoff violations depending on the year on the calendar. No one expected this, and some teams have responded to the change quicker than others. Some teams have the special team skill to take advantage of the situation or at least withstand it. Some not.

My question after the very entertaining fifth game, in which the final third was almost entirely five-on-five, was how different this game was from the others. The minutes spent in each game state can’t really tell the whole story. Game five isn’t even the one with the most five-on-five time. The story is more complicated.

If the normal minutes come in little shards between power plays, it won’t create flow in the game. When there is almost never time for a shift change before a standstill, that’s different than with long stretches like the third hour on Tuesday evening.

I felt like game 4 was the worst of the series. It wasn’t a hockey game for me anymore, and I think that, along with the result, was part of the reason why the Leafs fans were so upset about the loss. But how you feel about a game is heavily influenced by the goals scored, the order in which things happen and a host of other factors. So I decided to rudimentarily track game status in all five games, ignoring the score while concentrating on game flow.

I used Evolving Hockey’s play-by-play query tool to give me just enough information to plot the changes in game state. I’ve set the y-axis the same on each chart to give you a sense of the scale differences, and all five-by-five bars are red. Duration is seconds, so remember that a period is 1,200 seconds and a game is 3,600 seconds. Normal shift length in the NHL today is about 40 to 45 seconds, so the first line goes through the lineup one and a half times at 250 seconds.

Game One set the tone for the first four. The whistle never stopped blowing and the game never got going. But note the longer stretches with no penalties at the end of the game, just like we’re used to.

Game Two had two lengthy five-a-side stretches and had a decent crowd early on with no penalty, but otherwise the stretches lasted only a few shifts between special teams’ work.

Game three was easier, with fewer calls and a lot of five-on-five towards the end of the game. It was almost what we consider normal in the NHL today. But it wasn’t until the second third that the flow started.

Game four was actually a bizarre game with alternating penalties throughout most of the second and third periods. It was boring, frustrating, and there was more standing around and arguing about who was going into the box or why than there was playing. I hated it and I stopped watching it not only because of the score but also because it’s not hockey to me. I don’t like analyzing powerplay techniques and while the Leafs PK is fun, it’s more of a stunt than anything I take seriously.

Game Four, if that became the standard, would destroy the watchability of the sport. I understand that with hits and line fights like in Game One, it can get boring. It wasn’t like that. This game was a series of trip and smack calls, many of which deserved it, but both teams also took those calls, a kind that usually comes on the losing side chasing the game.

The first 484 seconds, or eight minutes, was the longest five-on-five stretch in the game.

Game five looks a bit similar at first glance, and as I watched the game, my feeling was that because of the halftime switch, the Leafs were able to get back to mainly five-a-side play. The second longest 5v5 bar comes towards the end of the second period and spills over into the third.

This was the closest thing to a full hockey game in the series for me, although game three almost got there at the end. Two teams played their best in Tuesday’s finale, which was so fascinating as chances and goals were traded. It was finally time for line matching and coaching. It was a duel of goalkeepers, the audience was enraptured by every moment. It was a hockey game. Win or lose, it was finally worth seeing.

I don’t know how much of what we’re seeing in this series is an apparent change in refereeing orders and how much of it is bone-headed Maple Leafs who can’t stop tripping, grappling, hitting and just generally being so afraid of it have to make something a mistake, they take penalties in bundles. Tampa also parades to the box. And other series are like that too, especially Boston – Carolina.

I don’t know what the NHL is trying to achieve here, but despite everything I’d like to see some consistency in game naming, it’s not! The end of the game is when the whistle stops, even in the worst examples. You can feel the makeup calls before they arrive. It’s not a different refereeing paradigm, it’s just more. Extra more.

I want penalties to be awarded – with some discretion for accidental contact – but I enjoyed Tuesday’s hockey game. I would like to see more of them.

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