March 24, 2011
Last night, the 100-year-old Scandinavian sniper Teemu Selanne(notes) scored with five seconds left in an absolutely crucial game against the Anaheim Ducks' division-rival Dallas Stars -- that goal managed to push the game into overtime, where they eventually snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Teemu's kinda done that a lot in his career.
It's often said that the puck just follows great players. When opponents are asked what makes point-getters like Teemu so special, it's they're not always able to pin it down; it usually ends with some variety of the confounded response, "I dunno, he just always seems to be in the right spot."
From Wayne Gretzky down to Thomas Vanek(notes) (maybe an odd example, but dude lurks with the best of them), these guys can often slip under the radar for an entire game until you check the box score. 2 and 1 for 3 points?
When did that happen?
But alas, there is no magnet in the puck -- turns out having a hockey IQ as high is just about the next-best thing.
Stripped down to the base element, continually scoring those "just in the right spot" goals seems start with this: Pure goal scorers sense chaos better than other players, and they capitalize on the madness the way savvy stock brokers don't overreact to every fluctuation in the market. When the play becomes frenzied and opponents start to grip their sticks extra hard, their bodies seem to release one smooth dose of Valium into the bloodstream, and it suddenly it's time to head for the quiet areas inside the zone.
If there's a goal-mouth scramble, heading into the pile will undeniably increase your likelihood of touching the puck. You can help screen the goalie if someone gets it, and you can help knock defensemen away from it. Your team needs players like that.
But when you do get a touch on the puck in there, the odds of you actually having the time and space to make a decent shot are slim to none, and slim just dropped into the butterfly position and took away the bottom of the net. In that kerfuffle, defensemen grab your stick with their loose hand, the puck is in your feet, and suddenly it squirts out of the pile.
And, kaboom, there's your lurker.
Those stealthy finishers won't touch the puck nearly as often as the grinders will when it comes to in-crease chaos, but when they finally do, rest assured some twine will be receiving a complimentary cold puck massage.
Remember where Gretzky was when he scored his 802nd goal? He skated away from the play while everyone went puck staring, and found the soft area.
Remember how Lemieux would drift down to the forgotten area by the goal line to take one-timers from seemingly impossible angles?
A sheet of NHL ice is a finite area, with the offensive zones being 85 feet wide, with a mere 64 feet between the blue line and goal line. Then you cram in eleven large men in equipment with five playing a zone defense, and open ice is a rarity. The biggest problem for the offense isn't getting the puck, it's being able to get it in a spot where you have a second to take the shot you want.
Without the puck, the man sniffs out soft areas before they even exist, not so much going where the puck is headed, but going towards where players are headed away from. If the puck doesn't show up there, well, that's partially how streaks and slumps occur.
The ball-hockey-in-gym-class method of puck pursuit while under pressure that some other players favour — you know, "there it is, chase it!" — is exactly what allows these predators to feast.
And man, has Teemu eaten well.
He's currently tied for 12th in the NHL in scoring, and helping his team's top line drag the Anaheim Ducks into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Now that's some mighty fine lurking right there.