Merry Christmas and Happy New year, dear underwater hockey geeky blog follower!
All the best for the coming year, may your sticks never break, your togs never disappear up your bum crack and may the masks of your enemies be filled with bubbles.
As we find ourselves past christmas time and edging past New Year, back in the hindsight diary we have crept up to the last round of Quarterfinals in the Mens division, USA versus NZ. With a lot of side-tracking along the way.
In camp, during one of our rest days we went for a group visit to a local shop in search of costumes for the party. You don't know how you are going to be finishing up in the pool, but you can always prepare to have a good time on the function night no matter what.
We had done a few minor expeditions to various shops and malls, with mixed results and discoveries. Normally this kind of questing goes like this.... team splits up, looks at different spots, someone finds somewhere that does cool costumes or something, everyone else turns up to look. After a while, someone (ahem, always Benson) makes some incredibly witty/insightful/hilarious remark to the store owner that also either offends them greatly on general good taste grounds or possibly makes them call the cops outright. Or, someone (ahem, always Benson) tries on some incredibly unsuitable garment without using a changing cubicle, and everyone gets thrown out and banned. Repeat, until we can find somewhere and get costumes before we are ejected.
This time around we had a good look at a mean cosplay store, and Benny was very well-behaved, probably due to his being all grown up and a dad now... more likely due to extended effects of sleep deprivation... well, it's the same thing sometimes. Anyway we ended up at some dress-up emporium.
There's always a large element of democracy in selecting a theme as everyone feels out their different boundaries. I won't show the end theme yet, but we got one, got a load of stuff, had a laugh, and then got home and promptly stashed it all in Sarah's room, out of sight and mind until the comp was over.
A team at quarters has now run through a bunch of learning and tuning. By this stage, hopefully, a team will have everything sorted out that's in their control...
Hydration and eating routines
Loosening, stretching routines and areas
Probably have a quiet spot or spots to chat and motivate, at accommodation or pool
Reserves have their routines set, know where they fill the bottles, the deck areas, all that stuff
Pre-game warmups are set, whatever they may be, as well as all their timings
Subs are well-practiced, everyone knows who's doing what
Hopefully the team will have had a lot of practice dropping to 5 or 4 and have transitions smooth and comfortable. You absolutely want to have at least a few kickouts early in the comp.
Even timeouts and chants have formed patterns
The inevitable new gear for the comp, especially hats and togs have all been figured out and settled into
And REFS! Interpretations by now have been adjusted for... hopefully.
By this stage, in Quebec, I thought the teams of referees had been doing a great job. They were very well organised, and although there were very minor adjustments in interpretations from start of comp to the playoffs in some reffing teams, these were very small and most importantly seemed to be applied consistently. That's the ideal really.
I was waiting for a bit of a report from some keen refs but haven't received any yet, but at the risk of getting something wrong, very loosely, the refs this time around were split into a few large groups. Each group had a couple of more experienced refs to help guide any newer ones, and there were also secret ninja refs floating around watching and rating refs in the early stages... that's my understanding.
From these reffing pods I guess were selected the refs that went on to ref the knockouts, based on performance in the early games. More info if I get more info on this, probably a whole post.
This kind of visible feedback loop for referees is really great. It provides a form of accountability and an opportunity for feedback and improvement that really helps players to see. As a player and coach that has at times had the maturity level of a 7 year old when dealing with refs, sadly, I can safely say from experience that feeling frustrated at reffing related stuff can really put a ratty shadow on a tournament. It's no fun for the refs and no fun for players having frustrations occur or escalate.
In this vein, when referees project themselves as a group of people applying processes to improve and monitoring themselves just like the players do it really helps to reduce any player frustrations and in turn improve the player/referee relationships. Hopefully this helps referees to enjoy the experience of officiating and contributing such an important aspect to the event and keeps them coming back and also adding their experience back in.
And they had to do a fitness test too! Seeing the refs take things so seriously is great for the sport as a whole and the improvements that are being made are really good to see. I really hope it keeps developing. Big positive steps, in my opinion.
Ok anyway lets start the hockey bit. NZ vs USA Elite Men, Quarterfinal 2018.
So, we started well and got a bit of territory and pressure off the first strike, ended up getting a couple of adv pucks in the US corner. I muffed the first one with a silly pass, then Jesse went straight on the second with all the guys behind him, everyone around the puck in a colombian type play, here
Jesse followed this in really well in typical animalistic fashion and he and Andrew managed to bunt the puck across goal-side, where Andre lurked in wait, and someone threw a pass that was going vaguely towards the goal and hit something. After a quick refs chat they awarded a penalty goal.
Jesse following a free puck. Or any puck, for that matter. Boy's got commitment!
So, this goal actually seemed to be a bit of foreshadowing of the game. A lot like the Portugal game, things just went right for us, a lot. These games don't come around very often, and you really don't expect them in a pressure knockout game, but regardless, let's look at some things that stood out.
A bit after this, here's an interesting snap from the footage.
play has just moved across after the strike, and very quickly the US has 4 guys on the wall/channel. The interesting thing I find is the positioning of the outside forward and halfback. Reeeeeally deep. USA is playing a 3-3 variation, and given there are 2 champion french players in the team, maybe a bit of frenchness has been injected here.
When I was a young fella playing forward in 2000, we played 3-3 and our open forward was doing pretty much what most forwards were doing, it seemed. you tended to set your position in line or thereabouts from the puck when it was on the far wall. You need to be far up enough to catch/pressure an opposition switch but not too far up so they can cut under you. From there you might adjust a bit.
mighta looked a bit like this.
We noticed that a few years back the outside french forwards had started setting a lot further back than this.
US guys looking a bit more like this in our quarter, but of course they slide up as breaks are made or onto the bin in the attacking corner.
The effect anyway is that you drop the pressure on the switch, and stop trying to hit the goalie when he has the puck. You just let the switch go across in front of you, and the forward protects your back on the outside, the switch can't get round, run them to the wall and set your channel play up again. Why would you do this? If you're happy on the wall, for sure. Ok, lets go across to the other wall! And given that a team like Aussie generally gives ground to go wide, you'd often gain territory and switch walls when they try to swing it, and in fact that's what happens these days. Switch defence has improved so much, many teams don't bother or only switch when on a powerplay and the opposition will be missing their outside forward, ie their protection for their outside back.
So if you look at the US outside players, the outside forward is a full lane and a half behind the puck. Any switch and the goalie is going to have heaps of time and get his pass off, but you're never getting around that forward when he starts so deep, or if you do it's taken so long everything is set behind him. Worth considering that USA beat Aus for maybe the first time in a long time later in the comp in Quebec.
A few frames on for example...
US pressuring the wall and rolling us back, check the positions of outside players top right, that's fwd and back. Wall fwd is hovering out of court, center-forward on the wall.... they really, really aren't bothered if the puck goes into the middle because their outside guys just run up onto it from deep.
Soon we had another adv this time right in front, again Jesse was in, he went straight with a similar play and after the initial chip someone got a perfect straight pass behind the US backline and Ben Pav was ghosting over the top of the mess, dropped on it and swam it in and we were 2-0 up.
So far USA had great cover in place in case we tried to go around them, but going straight through had worked really well instead. 2 similar situations, 2 identical approaches, 2 goals.
Next up, US pressured our corner after a good break up the wall by Andrew Creedon, and eventually managed to turn the corner and get a quick break up the backwall, catching our rotation out. The US outside forward pushes right up and dropped on the goal corner, but a defender manages to slide the puck away into the middle and watch Ben Pav entering frame from the top right on a fresh sub...
What about this guy eh? Without a hitch, just swims straight onto the puck as it slides out and off and away to clear it. No doubt, Pucky McStickface the Uwh god had a crush on young Ben this comp and I couldn't be happier about it, being on his team.
This was gutting for the USA guys, would have been a 2-1 scoreline and settled the game, but just didn't drop for them. This play was the best attacking opportunity they had in the game in the end.
A few minutes later we had another adv and after a pass made it through the first row a big clump of bodies finished the goal. With only a couple minutes to go until halftime, we then had a ripper of a strike. Ben wins it, then Jeremy happens. It's worth keeping your eye on him through it, especially for young forwards.
As the puck bobbles Jeremy reaches back for it and pulls it up between the US forward and center, and then sneaks inside the supporting back who is slightly off balance covering the wide option. Jeremy then draws the last defender, fades to his right around him and inside flicks it across towards goal where Ben and Rob following up finish it. Jeremy has his own very unique skillset and way of moving the puck around with his tiny benson-style stick, and this kind of ambush move from an unexpected body position is where it works best.
Honestly a freakish play there and a 4-0 scoreline going into halftime after that... a similar scoreline as we had at halftime against GB in our quarterfinal in 2016 at the last worlds before they came back to beat us. All our goals went straight through the middle of the US formation while they seemed to be expecting us to try to go around the edges.
Second half and the US push down their right wall a few meters but then give away an adv puck. Jesse then takes it with forwards hovering trying to look to drop on a pass. I don't know how he does it but Jesse a bunch of times will take the puck fast, have the puck bobble up on his stick, all the opposition start to go for him and then he instantly controls it and slots a pass. It's crazy, you can see it here and it looks like an accident but it happens all the time. He even does it on penalty shots, no joke. Probably gave Benson heart palpitations every time.
So Jesse does get a nice pass through the line of 3 US forwards, and as it lands for the US back in support Andrew bumps it across to Jeremy who slides it back in a nice 1-2 and Andrew is away around one of the remaining cover defenders, which pulls the other back in and the US have lost a lot of shape. The opportunity is really made when Andrew converts this break into 2nd phase by laying it back to Gunny in good position who then takes a slow angle not quite toward the goal trying to get as close as he can before drawing a tackle, makes a nice pass and everyone around collapses into a scrum and the goal is finished.
Andre then had his turn on the highlight reel to do something freaky. Andre turns a nice cover-tackle on the outside, goes wide then cuts inside and pops past the support defender behind and well finished by the forwards on the other side.
A little after that I actually have a chance to push up and attack, end up backflicking a bit too high which you can't see in the vid really but I'll post it up anyway...
And we score it but it's deemed dangerous and disallowed. It seems really ratty to have a big highlights reel here with only NZ stuff on it but, this is the game where it all went our way, really. I'm not just being a one-eyed dick here.
Andre with a great dummy to his outside here gets around the outside flank of the US and combines with Ben and Rob, then finishes it himself in the end too. Andre having a blinder in this game. USA making most of their ground with short bursts up the walls but unable to hang onto the puck long enough to create a lot of pressure, and as the game goes on, giving up a few fouls trying to force something to happen in those channels and releasing pressure on us that way too.
This last play rounds out the game and I guess it's a bit of a microcosm. Is that the right word? Of the game as it played out. US look to go wide to open up some space, Andrew Harris drops on it and catches the puck on the backs stick, forces it back in, Jesse pounces on the US guys trying to control it who aren't sure who is in the best position to take it, he's in behind the backline very quickly and feeds Hamish for the goal.
To be honest, what a bloody weird game. Game finished 8-0 to us.
As I mentioned above, USA beat Australia 2-1 later in the rounds as the knockouts went on for the final placings, and we were very lucky to get past Australia with a 3-0 in the RR that could very easily have been a 3-2 2-1 type scoreline or even have gone the other way or a draw. I guess that's why it's never a good idea trying to compare scorelines. Never a good predictor of anything.
We were through to the Semi-final. In the warmdown area Ross from GB said to me "You didn't want to stop at 4-0 this time eh?" ...Oh mate. Of course there is always a tiny bit of a sting being reminded of bad beats like that, even after a few years... but hey. Fair call! That Ross has got a good sense of humour, I'll give him that. I love the fact that when the GB boys play, Lewis never fails to say "Ross the powerful back" any time he touches the puck. It's hilarious. Even better when Lewis reveals that Ross had requested it! I think a few of the other GB boys might have too, maybe someone was a power-forward? Didn't stick as well though. Suddenly I want everyone in the to have a moniker, it's a fantastic idea. I have no idea what I would ask for.
Next post, Semis.