How the 1982 Canucks tried to pull off the upset of a lifetime
Puck possession & zone time. These are the usual talking points for coaches & teams when it comes to what determines success. You’ll hear it expressed through various clichés like “wanting to get behind their defense” or “play in the offensive zone,” but the focus is usually the same. The overall goal is the same, but the way teams go about it has changed over the years. This quote from Alex Kovalev is a good summary of how things have changed.
I don’t always agree with how dumping the puck in is considered giving it away, because the game is faster now and sometimes sending the puck into an open area where a teammate is close by is the most you can do in that moment. There’s just not enough time and space, or at least that’s how the game is taught in some circles. The skill level is higher than it ever was, but the increase in pace has led to some games being littered with panic-driven plays and a guy who liked to hang onto to the puck forever like Kovalev might have struggled to adjust.
Kovalev’s example is a little extreme, but there is something to be said about how clearing the puck at the first sign of danger is the first instinct for players now. Even if they’re playing more of a speed, possession oriented game, chipping the puck out of the zone for a forward to chase down with speed is a common play now to get breakaways or rush chances. The worst case scenario is the other team gets the puck in the neutral zone & has to re-enter (assuming it even gets out). Just like how the worst case scenario associated with dump-and-chase is that the other team has to go back, retrieve the puck & skate the full length of the rink to do anything. It’s an okay strategy if you’re milking the clock, but won’t help you much if you’re trailing or even in a tie game.
The selling point is the simplicity. It’s easier to get rid of the puck & go after it when space isn’t available than to create space that isn’t there, especially if you’re outmatched or just don’t have your skating legs on that particular night. If you’re going up against a top seed after just sneaking into the playoffs, some would say that it’s better to be reactive and play for tie until the other team gives you an opportunity with a turnover or a power play. Until then, just play the territorial game as much as possible. Get the puck deep, go to work, don’t force anything that isn’t open. All that good stuff. It can work if you get the goaltending, which has happened more times than I’d like to admit.
One of the more interesting chapters in Jack Han’s new hockey retrospect book is on the 1982 Stanley Cup Final, where the focus is placed more on the Vancouver Canucks, who were swept in four games by the Islanders (who just won their third Cup in a row). Vancouver was a team with a losing record in the regular season & got a gift in the first round of the playoffs when the Los Angeles Kings defeated Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers. The Canucks made short work of the Kings & the Blackhawks and found themselves in the Final against a team with 24 more wins than them.
When I tracked this series for Jack’s book, my general impression was that Vancouver got their asses kicked, but it was the first NHL game of the bunch that looked similar to modern hockey from a pace standpoint. Both teams were flying up and down the ice, generating chances, pass lengths were getting longer, they were regrouping in the neutral zone if nothing was open. The only games I had tracked up to that point which resembled this involved the Soviet or Red Army teams. There were only a couple of times where the play had to be killed because the puck got stuck along the wall for more than two seconds (a rule that I never got used to no matter how many of these old games I watched).
This is why the chapter focuses so much on Vancouver coach Roger Neilson and how he had the Canucks play a more possession-based style similar to the Soviets. They didn’t ice the puck much or dump it in (57.9% controlled entry rate in the series) and tried to gain the line with support, sometimes with as many as four players at a time. Jack does a good job of illustrating with their neutral zone regroup looks like here.
Getting by the first forechecker was the key to making it work, as the Isles typically had four players stationed behind the red line, which made getting through the neutral zone difficult. Vancouver tried to use the open space around the red line to their advantage by quickly moving the puck left to right & building up speed or an odd-man situation against defenders that were standing stationary most of the time. The onus was on them to make a play after gaining against the Isles two defenders. It’s easier said than done, because the Isles defense had a size advantage and guys like Gord Lane & Ken Morrow didn’t need to take many strides to limit Vancouver’s rushes to one shot. That and they didn’t fall for some of the deceptive passing plays & changes in direction that the Canucks tried. Still, the theory was that if they can enter the zone enough, they’re eventually going to find a break.
Here’s what it looked like in action:
It extended to the defensive zone, as well. Even after they gave up chances, they would do their best to try to get on the attack as quickly as possible instead of living to fight the next shift by icing the puck or slamming it out of the zone. They probably knew that if they did that, the Islanders were just going to clear the puck and outwork them along the boards because that’s where their strengths were. Jack showed a good example of that from Game 3 here.
I don’t remember the exact timestamp of this, but the Canucks were pressing most of the game and this came after they gave up a couple of chances. It was rare to catch the Islanders out of their structure, so opening the game up allowed them to generate some rushes like this where they had 3-4 guys attacking the line. The Islanders defense stayed pretty disciplined when Vancouver tried this, often having a guy playing centerfield in the slot area to break up any passing plays, but it did lead to some odd-man chances for the Canucks. Which was going to be the only way they got anything by Billy Smith.
Unfortunately, there were also a lot of rushes that ended up looking like this:
Most of this went a little over my head when I was watching the game because the tactics Vancouver used were so similar to what’s commonplace in the NHL today. Granted, some teams use their speed to play more of a bumper car style of hockey, but how this Vancouver team approached the game reminded me a lot of how Chicago played during their run in 2010’s and how Toronto plays when things are going well for them. Vancouver was swept, but it never looked like the mismatch that it was on paper. The Canucks led in a couple games and kept the scoreboard close for awhile in Games 3 & 4 before NYI inevitably closed them out.
Talent eventually won. Thomas Gradin & Ivan Bolderiv were good players and Stan Stmyl has a spot on my All-Underrated team, but the Islanders had five Hall of Famers, one of which was their goaltender. They also had seven more shorthanded goals than the league average, so they were going to be coming after you even if there was a man advantage. Neilson’s tactics gave them a fighting change, though and it was a little counterintuitive to how teams play now. If you don’t have the skill or the talent to keep up, the recipe for success usually stems from getting the puck deep & keeping the puck in the offensive zone or relying on your goaltending to bail you out until you get a chance on the counterattack.
The Canucks had a huge talent disadvantage, but they had players whose strength was attacking as a group and I liked how Neilson at least tried to play to his roster’s strengths. If he played a territorial, forechecking game against the Islanders, they would have been skating backwards the entire time because the Isles had a gluttony of forwards whose specialty was getting the puck out of their own zone quickly & killing plays along the boards. This was something I didn’t see a lot of teams try back then unless they had an elite talent like Gilbert Perreault on the Sabres or any of the Habs teams.
There’s a lot to hockey systems & strategies that I’m a little skeptical of because so much of it depends on whether or not you have the players. Vancouver had a bunch of good-but-not-great players and Neilson’s emphasis on puck possession helped build on their roster’s strengths. It was good enough to get them to the Final & I think that counts for something even if the Isles had their way with them in the end.
Read about this series & more in Jack’s Hockey Tactics Retrospective Part 1. It’s just one of 17 games/series he breaks down in depth. I watched all of these games to collect stats for the book & there are so many things he points out that I didn’t notice on the first watch. If you’re a hockey fan, a sports historian or someone that just likes learning about the game, this is a must buy! You’d be surprised to learn which tactics are still relevant in the game today.