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Sports

Lots of hockey. Lots of golf. Other sports too. 

On Hockey: Breaking Ben (Bishop)

Minivan Dad

I have pet peeves every National Hockey League postseason. Ok, I'm pretty much peeved all the time, but not always hockey-related. This spring, though, my Stanley Cup Playoffs pet peeve is... 6'7" - (required by law to precede his name upon first mention) - Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop. Why is poor Ben my pet peeve? (His game. Not really Bishop himself, I don't know him personally.) Derek Brassard's first period goal from Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Tuesday May 26, that's why.

The first goal of Game 6, (watch here) ultimately won 7-3 by the Rangers, is scored by Derek Brassard after a takeaway at the left offensive blue line by Rick Nash and Dan Boyle, a blocked shot, and a quick pass from JT Miller. Brassard finds himself 1-on-1 in the slot with the 6'7" (see!) Bishop, crosses from his left forehand to backhand, eludes a poke check, and slides the puck under the Lightning goalie's left knee and into the net. The general consensus on the sequence has been that Brassard made a very good offensive move, Bishop erred by attempting a poke check, but made a very athletic, though ultimately unsuccessful, recovery. I disagree. I think that a review of the play shows a specific fundamental footwork mistake that, if corrected, would have given Bishop a much better chance of stopping the puck throughout the play. 

Ok, this is just one example, so yeah, it's a small sample size. I still think individual plays can reveal a player's "core" fundamental tendencies, and shouldn't be dismissed by the typical "he usually makes that play," or "it was just a bad night, nothing to learn from that," or even "nothing he could have done about that one." Most analysis, even more advanced statistics, focuses on "what happened?" over large sample sizes in order to assess a player's overall strengths and weaknesses. I'm much more interested in specific plays in the context of the overall assessments, and in asking "why did it happen, and what would you do about it?" You know, like a goalie coach, rather than a TV analyst or general manager with contracts to negotiate. 

Also - full disclosure - Little Sister Goalie won't let me torture her with minutiae anymore, so I've got to annoy someone.

So here goes. (All below photos are screen captures from the NHL app.)

The initial shot from Boyle, following the takeaway at the blue line, is blocked. Bishop is dropping to a butterfly as a reaction to the initial shot. There is nothing wrong with this, particularly at his size. He's square to the puck and in good position to play a potential shot from Miller. 

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After Miller makes his nifty pass to Brassard, Bishop remains in his butterfly, still positioned well. Since he is facing a 1-on-1 play, he could rise to his skates at this point, but because of his size and athletic ability, it really isn't necessary.

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Now it gets interesting. Brassard moves toward Bishop, on his forehand. He correctly reads that the enormous goalie is blocking out the sun, so he starts to move the puck from his forehand to his backhand. Bishop attempts a poke check that doesn't reach the puck, for which he's been criticized because of what follows. To me, though, the issue isn't the poke check, since he is an aggressive goalie with a long reach and an active stick. That's his style. The error is in his technique rather than his decision.

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Bishop sees Brassard's move and reaches out with his right hand to poke check. Simultaneously, he raises his left knee and engages his left inside skate edge. 

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Wait, what? Why would he engage his left inside edge? He now has his body braced against his left skate while he's reaching forward with his right arm, tracking a puck carrier moving across his face from right to left. Engaging his inside left skate edge inhibits the proper execution of his poke check and limits his ability to efficiently follow Brassard's move to the backhand, a move which Ben has already correctly anticipated! To top it off, the forced backward rotation of his left shoulder means he is no longer square to a potential shot path. It's a Triple Lindy!

So what should he have done? How about lifting his right knee and engaging his right inside edge, leaving his left pad sealed flat along the ice. This allows him full extension on his poke check, possibly even the option to push into the check and further extend his already huge reach, and also allows him to recover with a butterfly push to his left if the poke check is unsuccessful. He can follow Brassard's backhand move with his lead left pad sealed on the ice, remain square to the puck, and his stick can cover the trail angle to his 5-hole that Brassard ultimately exploits.

Instead, once he engages his left inside edge, he's in big trouble. His poke check is ineffective. His upper body lurches forward and to his left, against his engaged edge, which forces him up onto both skates in a pretty ungainly position. 

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Being up on both skates would have been fine when Brassard initially controlled the puck. It would be fine at this point too, if Ben were better balanced. Instead, he is now behind the play (that he anticipated correctly), and he's off balance. He has no leverage or momentum to execute a butterfly push and extend his left pad while sealing the ice. As a result, he's forced into a desperation full-butterfly crash to his left, with his stick trailing behind. He hasn't sealed the ice, he has given up depth, and there are holes everywhere. He still almost gets away with it, but Brassard slips the puck back against the grain and just barely under the knee of his dropping left pad. 

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I'll be the first to admit that Brassard made an outstanding play, and he may well have scored even if Bishop had played the sequence differently. The converse is also true. Had Brassard missed his mark, or Bishop's left pad been even an inch lower, then this would have been regarded as a brilliant athletic save. Either result, really, is irrelevant to this analysis. Many factors, including "puck luck,' contribute to the outcome of any hockey play.

It's the role of each player in these individual battles to maximize the probability that his preferred outcome will result. Bishop should have initially engaged his right inside skate edge, instead of his left, when attempting his poke check. The attempt might have been successful, but if not, then he would have been in a much more efficient and advantageous recovery position. Brassard would have had to either extend his backhand beyond the reach of Bishop's huge left pad, or he would have been forced to sharply elevate the puck, from his backhand, over Ben's active glove. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, Bishop would have forced Brassard into a much more technically demanding shot attempt than the one on which he was able to score this pivotal goal.

I know it's only one play, and there will be many more in tonight's Game 7 showdown. Bishop may have a fantastic game, the Lightning may go on to win the Stanley Cup, and this play early in Game 6 will be forgotten in the celebration. It shouldn't be. Ben Bishop is a very, very good NHL goalie, but I think this sequence shows that his fundamental technical base is flawed, and that undermines the considerable advantages that his size affords him. You can't teach 6'7". You can teach skating, and based on this play, Big Ben has some homework to do whenever his summer ultimately starts.