Red Devils import Balakuns injures hand in fight

With six games in the books, the Canterbury Red Devils find themselves in a position they would rather not be in again and that’s on the outside looking in.

As the Devils took on the defending champions this past weekend, the Skycity Stampede had all the signs of a champion knocking the rust off for another run. Matt Schneider and crew were held within reason for the first two periods of each game, but then the third periods occurred – allowing a disastrous ten on Saturday, four on Sunday.

Any time you are involved with a sports club, you find out early on that nothing happens in isolation. Positively or negatively, things affect other things. The Red Devils had a confluence of events that ended up sinking the weekend’s efforts.

The commitment to the 3-man forecheck was steadfast through most of the weekend and crucial to the Stampede’s success. Unable to pass or skate the puck out of their own zone, the Devils gave up turnover after turnover deep in their defensive end. The result was obvious – high conversion rates for the Stampede.

The Queenstown-based club didn’t have significantly more chances, they had better chances and stronger possession.

After going down 6-0, head coach Anatoly Khorozov switched to the young prospect Finley Forbes in net, having pulled starter Jonas Barakauskas. This gave Forbes a chance to make some positive saves, including one stretch save in particular that he had no business making. For the most part, it was about getting some much-needed experience, and that he did. So that was positive, and then there was the other ‘positive’, namely a punch-up between Vladislavs Balakuns and the Stampede’s Thomas Carson-Pratt.

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Photo: Josh Fraser

Nearing the end of Saturday’s blowout, Balakuns’ frustration boiled over and the import decided to do what many annoyed hockey players have done – fight and get a momentum swing for the next day. Well, it always sounds better than it actually is. Maybe he just wanted his Sunday off, because they would of course receive their one game suspension under IIHF/NZIHL rules. However the true cost is much longer – Balakuns is out 4-6 weeks with a broken hand according to Red Devils management.

The Red Devils goal differential took a hammering too, with 14-2 and 10-3 defeats to the defending champions they now find themselves dropping from third to fifth in the standings. While not a moment of panic yet, the panic button is now visible and the safety is being removed.

The bright side is that the schedule seems to play into their favour with two weekends off in a row due to the scheduling around the 2018 Ice Hockey Classic – plenty of┬átime to get things right again .┬áTheir next opponents will be the two Auckland clubs currently sitting 1-2 in the standings.

It’s a simple formula for the Red Devils this year. If they can transition more effectively out of the defensive end, they will get odd-man rushes against aggressive forechecking. Thus far, the offense has been no worse than average, although they may want to look at the performance of their special teams.

The problem is that if those chances are not created, they’ll never catch up against the teams that are physically bigger. The Devils have talent in areas that can easily make up for not being the biggest club on the ice, but those advantages can only pay off if you’re on the right end of the ice.

Main photo: Josh Fraser

The Devil Is In The Detail

After a very quick first quarter of the season, the Canterbury Red Devils have been through a full season’s worth of ups and downs already, and coach Anatoly Khorozov seems to finally be righting the once wayward ship.

In the first weekend of the year, Canterbury had a very forgettable effort against the emerging Botany Swarm. Along with picking up no points from two losses, the club was undisciplined, and looked to otherwise be searching for its identity. Tough-guy attitudes and mental mistakes led to a long couple of days in East Auckland, with penalty minutes adding up – Ukrainian import Tolstushko had 18 PIMs in one game alone.

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Almost as if they just had the weekend purged, the second round saw the Red Devils coming home to the Alpine Ice Arena in need of some good karma, and better discipline against their neighbours from the south, the Dunedin Thunder.

Dunedin seemed to be expecting a physical, tough-guy attitude from the Devils as they poised themselves in Saturday’s first period for what they thought would be a backyard brawl. What they got instead was a steady dose of well-coached hockey that took advantage of turnovers and poor positioning. In the first two frames, the Devils managed a nearly unbelievable 5-1 lead. And then it happened.

As had been the case in the first weekend, the Devils have been prone to two major weaknesses thus far in the early campaign; penalties in bunches, followed by giving up multiple goals within short periods of play. The third period, and specifically the first half of Saturday’s third was all Dunedin. Five goals in 9:55 seemed to seal a magnificent collapse by Canterbury. Suddenly down 6-5 with half a period to go, it seemed ripe for the Red Devils to drive off the preverbal cliff.

Instead, the opposite happened. Canterbury played disciplined, penalty free hockey, didn’t panic, and played a very hard-fought last ten minutes with a goal and a very solid defensive effort. They punished what was probably Dunedin’s only big mistake to tie the game, and then prevented any mental cramps of their own to take the game to overtime.

In overtime, it was Dunedin that lost their mental edge. Starting with 5 seconds to go in regulation with a completely unnecessary delay of game penalty, several minor penalties followed for the Thunder. They played the entire overtime shorthanded, and eventually conceded the winning goal after 4 minutes of almost all two-man advantage ice time.

And with that, the sellout crowd knew that the Red Devils were on their way back to being a contending club. Instead of folding and being willing to mail in another season, the grit and determination to fight back was evident to everyone who came out to cheer them on.

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That momentum carried into Sunday’s match as well. After the first period, the Devils found themselves up 3-1. Solid play by the Devils, avoiding bad penalties, and a little luck with Kane Easterbrook having a below average afternoon in goal for Dunedin allowed for a re-do. Of course, Sunday turned out to be nothing like Saturday.

Instead of piling onto a lead, Dunedin led the charge to stay in the game. After hard skating and hustle throughout the second period, the Thunder were starting to frustrate the Devils on home ice. Suddenly 4-3, Canterbury was staring over that same damn cliff for the fourth time in four games. They’d passed the challenge finally in their third attempt, but the fourth game brought on a twist.

Officially with 1 second remaining in the second, the stat sheet shows a major penalty called on Dean Tonks for abuse of officials. Nik Stefanissin served the penalty at the start of the third period, five minutes in the box for the Red Devils… the PA announced that it was officially a bench penalty, and I don’t think we’ll ever really know what happened or what was said. But this was the turning point for the game – it had to be given the prior discipline issues.

And then, the most promising thing happened for the Red Devils. For five straight minutes, the penalty kill ground out what was an amazing effort to kill the clock with effort from all sides. Hustle from every player on every shift, and putting Dunedin back on their heels, Canterbury dug themselves out of the mess they were in. Once that happened, the goals started flowing.

Without the fear of being off the ice, the Devils won several key faceoffs and made the most of their offensive opportunities. Suddenly up 6-4, there was yet another turning point in the game. They finally had a chance to finish off a game in regulation and get all three points.

And finish it they did. Solid forechecking kept Paris Heyd from getting odd-man opportunities, his specialty, and situational awareness and adjustments kept Dunedin’s speedster Orr from getting any significant opportunities with his skating. This combination, along with double-teaming Gavoille led to isolation and poor passing lanes for the Thunder.

Yoeman’s work by Chris Eaden getting back for multiple icing calls and breaking up developing odd-man situations killed off the game in the same way they closed Saturday’s game.

Though different in how it happened, the clinical focus of Khorozov’s club in the last 10 minutes of the game show that the Devils are prepared and coached up to make a turnaround season in 2018.

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It’s hard to say whether the momentum will continue, or if this was just a one-off amazing series with the Thunder, but the pieces are in place. If the team continues to fight through the mental mistakes, continuing to take better penalties, and not putting goaltender Barakauskas in odd-man rushes, the Red Devils could potentially have the pieces in place to make a run for the Birgel Cup once again.

Of course the most intriguing part of this story is that the same potential exists for implosion and mental errors, and thus is the story of a team in transition. And that’s what makes the Canterbury Red Devils an absolute must-watch this season. Whatever it ends up becoming, it’s going to be the best ticket in town this winter.

All photos by Josh Fraser.

Puck Thoughts: Hockey and the Points System

Hello, I’m Mat Chavez – the guy calling the Canterbury Red Devils home games this year. If you caught any of the openings, you might have heard me talking a little about the NZIHL standings. Specifically, how it differs from the NHL in North America.

While I can’t say I’ve done any sort of extensive research on it, I often have wondered about how the points system affects games and the coaching strategy within it. So I thought I’d compare three systems: FIFA, NZIHL, and the NHL.

First, let’s lay out the structure of how it works. Leagues value the outcome of games differently.

In soccer/football, FIFA changed the structure of points in the 1980s to three for a win, and one for a draw. This change was to give an incentive to go for a win and avoid a draw. The NHL in 1999 changed from the same two for win, one for draw into the system that exists today with two for a win still, one for an overtime loss. The IIHF/NZIHL format is three for a regulation win, two for an overtime or shootout win, one for an overtime or shootout loss.

Game Theory

So how does this affect coaching decisions? Should they at all? Are there ‘unintended consequences’?

Well, without assigning an emotion to them, we can start to see the incentive pattern involved. Not too long ago, hockey was like soccer in the sense that they were ok with draws as a result within their regular seasons. However, the NHL diverged from this idea and in 1999 they changed it to where the OTW gets two points, but the OTL still gets one.

So what has this done? I don’t have the statistics to suggest that the reality matches the theory, but the optimal outcome for an NHL game for any team is now to end regulation drawn.

How’s that? Any game ending at regulation awards two points, and any game that goes into overtime awards three. This means that on average, any OT game is 50% more valuable to the two teams playing in it.

If you compare the NHL to FIFA, you find the exact opposite scenario. If a win occurs, three points are awarded. If there is a draw, only two points are awarded. This means there is a 50% incentive to win over a draw on average. A team is rewarded for going for a win, but it’s not that simple. More on that later.

In the NZIHL, and IIHF, a three-level system rewards an outcome of any kind. This means that in regulation a win is worth three points, but if things can’t be decided the efforts of overtime are worth 1/3 of the regular game, and the two other points are split.

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Jordan Challis playing for the Ice Blacks. Photo: Mike Froger.

Strategy

Thus if we get into strategy, what does this mean in the real world? While it is speculative, my experiences seem to tell me a few things.

First, in soccer, this approach seems to reward offensive emphasis. Of course, this only exists in games where three outcomes are viable; if extra time and shootouts are around, this provides a very different game theory. However within a 90-minute contest, games have over a generation become more open and more likely to incentivise teams to work for leads in the first 80% of the game. However if teams enter the closing moments with the score locked up, they tend to be willing to accept the single point as an acceptable result. Conservative play in this area tends to be about ‘managerial preservation’, but it would still be a better play if the team needing points had a less-than-two-thirds chance of getting countered and beaten.

Heading over to the NHL, as I’ve already pointed out, teams actually have a true advantage of ending in a regulation draw.

Teams seem to play out fairly normally under the system because goals have a tendency to occur with consistency at any time of a game. While soccer has about 3.4 goals a match, hockey usually has about 5.5. This means that a goal occurs every 11 minutes, instead of the 26 or so in soccer.

Teams play defensively when entering with a draw, but teams just one goal behind have every incentive to win a point. Pulling a goalie with a reasonable amount of time to be effective is, as it always has been, a reasonable approach. One or three goal losses are only a mental balance; they have near zero significance elsewhere (Season Goal Diff is the final tiebreaker).

However once in a draw, a team has a chance to win another point based on a 5-minute 3v3 OT + shootout. These contests are worth “half of a regulation win”, and losing them has zero downside. Put another way, the Washington Capitals earned 118 points in 2016-17; most in the league. They won 55 games (incl. OT/SO). If they had drawn every game and won half of those, they’d have 123 points. Regulation draws are clearly encouraged by this system.

Finally, let’s discuss the NZIHL. It’s similar to FIFA, but it has an overtime point on offer like the NHL. Thus, you have elements where a win in regulation is vastly more important when compared to a direct opponent. You go three points clear of whom you beat in regulation, and only one point clear after an OT win. It values regulation as triple the effort, and OT shares the same spoils that were on offer otherwise.

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Botany Swarm’s KC Ball attacking the net. Photo: Mike Froger.

So which one is best?

It’s impossible to say whether the intended outcomes are better or worse, but they all seem to be a mechanism for driving the kind of play that FIFA, the NHL, and the NZIHF want in their competitions.

FIFA want attacking football and I think that they have done it. They’ve dealt with issues about match outcomes in the World Cup, and generally have an equitable system for their game without overly punishing draws.

The NHL have a system that is designed to work towards parity and exciting finishes with skill as the tiebreaker and no fear of getting into a draw. The NZIHL takes an even approach in emphasising winning in regulation, but still offers a 2/3 win to the victors, and 1/3 to the OT losers.

Well, before I simply write off the NHL for being “unfair” in its offering, and saying NZIHL is clear in its offering, there is an amazing effect that the NHL gets in its public relations without much fanfare.

Within the NZIHL standings, you see a 3/2/1/0 (W/OTW/OTL/L) that you can always add up. It’s four numbers and people don’t relate to it. With the NHL, you have W/L/OTL. You get three numbers but really just two matter: wins and overtime losses.

A simple formula of 2*W+OTL=Points. But when you look at all of the records, the clubs have better (or at least better looking) win-loss records than they technically should. The wins column combines regulation and overtime victories since they’re worth the same amount of points. You also split OT losses out of the loses column and into the column that North Americans associate with a “draw”, which is what it really is. Thus even a team with less than half the points on offer can appear to have a “winning record”. It’s a mirage, but it works.

What do you think? Should the NZIHL adopt the NHL scheme or stick with the status quo? Feel free to leave a comment below.

(Main photo: Mike Froger)