Thursday, May 19, 2011

On-Ice Decisions are the Difference between Winning and Losing

Decisions, decisions. Make the right one in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and you could be a hero. Make the wrong one at the wrong time and you will be a goat. Pros are faced with many tough decisions at a high rate of speed. Should I pinch along the wall or stay back? Should I forecheck and provide puck support or hang back so we don't get caught? It's the end of the shift, maybe we could get a 3-on-2, or maybe we should dump it and go for a change. Should I go out and play the puck behind my net or stay in the crease and let my defense take care of it? Play it safe or not. Many choices to be made that decide the fate of their team.

A decision a player makes can turn the tide of a playoff series. In Game 2 of the Vancouver-San Jose series Patrick Marleau decided to fight Kevin Bieksa, who is much more experienced at throwing fists. Why? To change the momentum in the game; give his team a lift. But, a few moments later Shark Ben Eager received a checking from behind penalty because he was fired up from the fight. Jeremy Roenick during the intermission said that if the Sharks come back Marleau's decisions to fight "a scary" Bieksa was the thing that made it happen. However, poor decision making from Eager muted Marleau's attempts to lead. Vancouver regained momentum, scored on a later Eager penalty, and dominated 7-3.

Coaches also make decisions that affect the course of a game and a series. Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette called one of the most important and famous timeouts in recent history when the Flyers were down 3-0 against the Bruins last year. Van Riemsdyk scored soon after and the comeback of all comebacks was on its way. Canucks Coach Alain Vigneault's decision to sit Luongo in Game 6 of this year's first round series versus the Hawks was widely criticized by the media as a move to protect Luongo's confidence. Chicago would win Game 6 in OT after Luongo had to come in to the net after an injury, but Luongo bounced back to play well in Game 7 and win (thus saving the organization from some serious second-guessing about goaltender moves).

On-ice decisions (and even pre game decisions) are certainly one of the most important factors in winning and losing. But, how can you train decision-making? How can a coach ensure that his team will make good decisions in pressure situations? Coaches pound a philosophy and a system into the brains of the players through constant repetition and communication. This consistent effort to coach and play a certain style creates habits that the players can fall back on during high speed affairs on the ice. It becomes a default method of making decisions. When Tampa won the Cup in 2004 the default was "Safe is death". Coach Tortorella's players new to attack and keep attacking.  This provided the Lightning to play an aggressive style even when under pressure.

Another method many hockey players use to make good decisions on the ice is to pre-play or visualize game situations and the "correct" play. A defenseman will visualize playing a 2 on 1 or 3 on 2. A forward will visualize their positioning in the defensive zone. A goalie will visualize coming out of the net and being aggressive. Visualizing prior to the game (and even during breaks in the game) helps players to make good decisions under extreme pressure and with very little time and space.

A very quick decision in tonight's game by defenseman Kevin Bieksa spurred the Canucks to a win over the Sharks. With the game tied 2-2 Bieksa was super aggressive when he decided to jump up through the neutral zone. He caught the Sharks by surprise and went in on a breakaway. It was an aggressive a good decision. Bieksa then made another great decision to shoot quick and low at goalie Niemi's feet catching him moving and off guard. The result a 3-2 lead. Vancouver may not have won handily if not for Bieksa's quick thinking.

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