Not Exactly Your Finest Moment, Eh?

The Botany Swarm lost 5-2 tonight, to the West Auckland Admirals.

And they deserved to lose. Not, I would argue, quite so badly as they did–I’m a Swarm fan, sure, but I don’t think the box score was wholly reflective of the run of play–but even at my most homer-ish I can’t begin to believe they should have taken the win.

A caveat: if you’ve read my (infrequently updated) blog before or follow my twitter, you’ll be aware I generally prefer to focus on the positives, as there are already more than enough people who apparently are only able to express their sports fandom through constant negativity. However, tonight was so intensely frustrating–especially after last season–that I have been compelled to dust off the blog. (Don’t worry, this will be much shorter than my usual blog posts… :D)

* * *

It’s been a frustrating couple of years to be a Swarm fan. There have been bright spots — the TTCL was fantastic and closer than it could have been, both wins of the Toa Kauhanga Riri Tio trophy from the Red Devils have been everything you could ask for as a fan, and the Swarm finally managing to take a season series against the Dunedin Thunder last year with some blowout wins was some nice payback after a couple years being thumped comprehensively by them.

But what we saw in stretches tonight, and what we saw last week in the second game against the Stampede as well were some repeating patterns that are incredibly frustrating as both a fan and spectator.

  • Penalties
    The amount of time the Swarm spent in the box tonight was absolutely egregious. I don’t care if you think the reffing was terrible, I don’t care that even I thought at least one call was nonsense; that’s not the point. Be better than the call. The parts of the game that were 5-on-5, especially the first ten and last twenty minutes were played well, with good flow and tempo, and a fair number of chances. It was immensely frustrating to see all that go out the window in the middle of the game, and especially so to see who was taking the undiscplined penalties.
  • Lead by example
    The veterans in the line up are so incredibly valuable and important to the team’s past, present and future, but the parade to the penalty box so far this season is an example of exactly the opposite of what I want to see the younger players emulate. Frustration penalties and lack of discipline absolutely smothered the initial pushes of offense and momentum when the Swarm were getting chances on the powerplay. I’m pretty sure that we don’t actually want to encourage the [Name] Hospitality Suite memes that are springing up again on social media, right?
  • Passing
    I realise this may be grating coming from someone who can barely skate let alone hold a stick, but when I go two games in a row wanting to yell “fucking hell, pass like you’ve met each other!” for an entire period then I think it’s fair to call out. The Admirals were largely tape-to-tape tonight and looked incredibly polished; the Stampede are probably the best in the league at puck management and making smart passes with good stick positioning away from the puck, but almost everyone on the ice tonight in a white jersey was making some poor choices about when and where to pass to, and flubbing reception of them. I’m sure it’s way more painful for them than me, but ouch.

    It’s not all doom and gloom, though!

    I do have a few things to laud, and like I said above: the first ten minutes were actually some of the best hockey I’ve ever seen in an Auckland derby. (Of course, like five minutes after I had that thought the Admirals had scored three times. Sucks to you too, Murphy’s Law.😦 )

  • The Kids Are Alright
    I’ve actually really enjoyed the Ball-Vortanov-Jonsson line since the preseason. They have been getting great chances every single game and honestly eventually they’re gonna start going in. I hope the Swarm stick with that one because it is fun as hell to watch (and not bad defensively, either.) 

    Ritchie Hopkinson has also been really fun to watch. In the preseason he pulled off not one but two absolutely perfect takeaways on Justin Daigle, who is not exactly an easy guy to get the puck off. That was quite the dramatic introduction for a player I hadn’t seen before at all, and he’s also been speedy and effective in the regular season. The short-handed break tonight was a nice chance.

    Matt Taylor has also been good to watch; he scored in the preseason and he’s come close to doing so again last week and tonight. He and Hopkinson both seem to slot in and out of the top six without looking out of place, and he’s had some nice chances with the imports.

    Good to see Logan Fraser back on the ice for the Swarm too. He’s another one of the kids you can tell has been getting more ice time in the Northern Hemisphere and his game has improved again too. Excited to see more of him, and he and Aaron Henderson didn’t do too badly at all tonight as a D pair.

    Olie Hay has also picked up more bulk, speed and skills after a winter playing with the Brahmas in the NA3HL in Texas and that’s been awesome to see. (However, to my dismay, the propensity to land in the penalty box has not decreased in proportion yet.)

  • Okay, Fourth Line, I gotta hand it to ya.
    It was admittedly about two shifts before the wheels fell off in the first period, but a bunch of the guys who tend to play outside the top six had some of the best chances tonight, and definitely some of the best play I’ve seen from a couple of them. (I’m not sure if they’re officially the fourth line in anything but TOI, but hey, roll with me on this.)

    Leith Thompson and Dion Guest in particular looked both faster and more confident tonight, and I did especially appreciate seeing Guest haul Thomas Clow out of a potential scrum rather than let anything else develop after the whistle.

  • Team Europe: Shoot Left, Score–Right?
    Another solid game for imports Sami Saastamoinen and David Lindgren, both of whom also kept the Swarm in the game to the point that I was hoping for a comeback pretty much right down to the wire. Unlikely, but it could’ve happened. The Swarm absolutely cannot and should not depend on their imports alone to win them games, but they also can’t complain about what they’re getting out of them so far this season. Saastamoinen’s goal was a beauty, and it was a pleasure to watch his stick-handling and skating all night. He might’ve only buried the one, but Rick Parry absolutely robbed him at least once and he had a few more good chances beside.
    Lindgren is also fun to watch–he’s so strong on his skates and he (and Attwell and Vortanov, I must add) was doing yeoman’s work in the corners and battling for the puck. He had a couple of shifts where he more or less had the puck on a string and was unlucky not to score or pick up an assist. Both of them were consistently good at finding themselves in the right position to make or receive a pass and I especially enjoy the way that Saastamoinen seems to have good chemistry with long-time assimilated Swarm player Alexandr Polozov, who also had a strong game and has looked good this season so far. Polozov’s skating has always been one of the strongest parts of his game, and he was making and finding room out there tonight like it was 2010 or 2011 again.

    It’ll be interesting to see how tomorrow’s Toa Kauhanga Riri Tio match goes, and how each team reacts to tonight’s game. Hopefully we’ll see a Swarm team that’s playing smarter hockey tomorrow, and a more even game both on and off the scoreboard. I’ll settle for them all laying off the swigs of Bad Decision Juice and a stern reminder there aren’t actually snacks in the penalty box.

Relatedly, confidential to the Swarm:

Guys. You’re actually pretty good at hockey. When you get your shit together, you are more than capable of beating any team in this league. However, when they manage to needle you into taking dumb penalties, roughing, retaliating or just generally rising to the bait of whatever chirping they’re dishing out, that’s when you seem to lose the plot and start messing up. Which, by the way, is exactly what the opposition want you to do, so maybe consider not dancing to the tune they want to play?

I realise it’s probably a case of the way society genders social responses, but I’ve always been perplexed at how few hockey players I’ve seen react to chirping/chippy play by laughing it off. Let me tell you: 1. It’s more effective 2. You stay out of the box where you can actually do your team some good and 3. NOTHING is more infuriating than being laughed at by the person you’re trying to get a rise out of.

Most of us watch the NHL, right? So here’s your specific example. I’ve seen Brandon Saad pull it off a few times, but the absolute master of this art is Marian Hossa. You know how when Marian Hossa gets guys chirping him on the ice he laughs in their face, skates right through them and then goes to score while they fume impotently?

Do that.

happy hossa
Marian Hossa is smart. Be like Hossa.

And You Love the Game [NZWIHL recap]

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NZWIHL Game #1//Auckland v Southern/29-11-14

The NZWIHL had its inaugural match this evening in Auckland, with the Southern team travelling to take on Auckland at Paradice Botany. The home side made a strong start to the competition, posting an 11-4 win.

As with the men’s league, the results and game sheet are available on the IIHF site – which is especially great because while Southern had nameplates on their jerseys, Auckland as yet does not. It was great to see a reasonable-sized crowd out to support the teams, too. Props to whoever made the Auckland banner hanging up in the stands!

Auckland looked dominant from the get-go, especially by scoring just 10s into the game, as Hannah Shields scored the first goal of the 2014-2015 season, sliding it past Southern goalie Carmen Claassen. Southern tied the score on a great end-to-end individual effort from the Ice Fernz’ Anna Goulding, who had a really strong game overall. Auckland pulled ahead on a goal from Hannah Jensen five minutes into the period, and didn’t look back after that, not surrendering the lead again despite Southern’s best efforts.

Helen Murray scored for Auckland about a minute later, followed by Libby-Jean Hay (who appeared to be playing forward, despite being listed at her usual defensive position), and the first period wrapped up 4-1 in favour of Auckland.

Both teams looked a lot more settled in the second period, and we had perhaps the longest stretch between goals to start that, before Southern put the puck in the back of the net on a nice shot from Ella Mills. Auckland made up for the goalless stretch in spades then, picking up three goals in the space of 66 seconds from Murray, Shields and Alex Hyde respectively. Goulding scored again for Southern near the end of the period, bringing the score to 7-3 after the first two 15 minute periods.

The third period was a 20 minute one, and it started well for Southern as Goulding picked up her third for the hat-trick. However, that would be Southern’s last goal for the evening as Auckland began to apply more pressure, dominating zone time even more noticeably and forechecking aggressively. Hyde scored her second a few minutes later, redirecting a shot from Hay right in front of the crease. Jessica Scott scored the 9th goal for the home side, followed quickly by Murray completing her hat-trick and a final goal from Gina Davis to round things out. Murray honestly could have had 4 or 5 on the night; she went hard to the net every time and got rewarded for it.

MVPs for both sides were Anna Goulding (Southern) and Alex Hyde (Auckland).

It was interesting (and awesome!) to see so many new-to-me players — going over the rosters it looks as if Canterbury has a few more of the Ice Fernz from the last few years rosters than either Auckland or Southern does, so I’ll be particularly interested to see how they stack up against the other two teams. For the most part, the players on all three teams trend quite young – Auckland has an average age of 19 (!), while Southern only hits an average of 24. It’ll be good to see how all three teams perform at home too, as I’d imagine they may well have trouble getting a full roster available to travel.

Going by the eye test and without being terribly familiar with the players yet, I’d say that Auckland had a clear edge today in terms of the average skating ability and confidence of their players, with a couple of standout players – Hyde, Murray, Hay and Shields in particular. Alyssa Suzuki was noticeable on defence for Auckland as well, with a couple of well-judged stick checks, and her tenacious backcheck helped break up what looked like a dangerous scoring chance from (I think) Heather Carlson in the second period.  Auckland had a fairly overwhelming shot advantage as well, putting 46 on Claassen, while Southern only mustered 8 shots on the score sheet. It felt like they had a couple more than that, though Auckland’s goaltender Lochlyn Hyde really didn’t see many shots due largely to Auckland’s ability to keep play in the other end. She did make a couple of good stops on partial breakaways for Southern, and was solid on their short-handed chance.

Both sides were a little shaky in transition from time to time, though like everything I’d expect that to improve when they’ve got a few more practices and games under their belts. On a personal level, I’m mostly just stoked that all our female players in the league are getting a chance grow their skills and develop a bit more than they may have been able to in the past – I think this can only help our future international rosters.

Anna Goulding was obviously the standout player for Southern, and she did a lot to keep the score looking more respectable than it could have (as did Claassen). Her third goal really was a joy to watch (even if I was technically cheering for Auckland), and the extra experience and leadership she brought to the team was noticeable. Nicola Henare brought a more physical dimension to Southern’s defence, and she and Ali Marcharg both stood out on their blueline as well. Ella Mills and Heather Carlson both stood out for Southern’s forwards, with Carlson getting a good chance and Mills picking up a nice goal to start the second period.

I’ll also give Southern a lot of props for a good penalty kill in the third period especially. All the goals scored tonight were at even strength, with Southern picking up the only four penalties in the game and managing to survive all of them. They were assisted in their first PK by Auckland’s PP unit getting wildly disorganised, and Southern picked up a couple of good short-handed chances before Auckland was able to regain possession. Nadia du Plessis picked up two for roughing after four or five players came together in Southern’s crease, and those two minutes of PK time were among Southern’s best for the night.

Auckland cut off a lot of Southern’s chances in the neutral zone, and I noticed a few times they were having one of their D stay right on the blue line, if not well back from it, while the rest of their skaters were deep in the offensive zone. That paid off for them in terms of having a few steps on the opposition to retrieve many of the pucks that Southern cleared out, especially as they tended to be a little faster overall. Neither team had much of a cycle going when in the offensive zone, although some of the passes were going haywire for both sides. Again, I’d expect that to improve a bit even by tomorrow; especially as the teams get more used to playing with each other.

The game was a bit more physical than I was expecting, which it seemed like both sides were largely fine with. Admittedly, I’ve been really slack recently in catching up on women’s hockey, so most of what I’ve been watching is full contact men’s leagues (NZIHL, NHL, AIHL etc.) Both Auckland and Southern did a decent job in board battles, and we didn’t get many whistles at all, mostly just a few icings and a couple of offsides. Although it must be said Auckland absolutely got away with a blatant hook or two at points; I would’ve expected a couple more calls, but then I’m sure the officials are also not exactly in mid-season form yet either…🙂

I’m definitely looking forward to Sunday morning’s game — if you’re in Auckland, the rematch is 8.15am at Paradise Botany Downs, and entry is free! (I recommend bringing a couple bucks to donate for chuck-a-puck as well. If I can win it once, LITERALLY anyone can. But mostly it’s a totally worthy cause to donate to!)

 

 

**And yes, the post title is a Taylor Swift lyric. Because I can.

In Praise of Summer Hockey

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The NHL proper has been back for a couple weeks now, and ever since the season kicked off, I’ve been reflecting on something, and that is: how great is this?

As a fan in the Southern Hemisphere, I’m lucky enough to get virtually year-round hockey. This year, the NZIHL started** literally 15 minutes after Alec Martinez scored to win the Kings their second Cup in three years. Half the Auckland streaming team were clustered around a tablet watching as the game hit its second overtime and wondering if we were going to actually see the end before our own game started. The NZIHL finished its originally scheduled events calendar with Skate of Origin the weekend of September 13th — and the NHL preseason started a week later.

**For me, that is. The Swarm had a bye in what was technically week one. But roll with me here, okay?

So here I am, on my couch with my feet up, cider at hand, fish and chips for dinner, the ranch slider door wide open for a warm almost-summer’s evening and even though it’s not even 9pm yet, I’ve watched two hockey games today — and I have a whole three day weekend ahead of me to watch a bunch more.

Those of us down in the Antipodes can tend to be a little salty occasionally about how the time zones work out for us, and with some justification – I’m sure my co-workers at least would prefer that the majority of Blackhawks games did not, in fact, start at 1pm NZ time, making me prone to being rather short with anyone who tries to talk to me when I’m listening to the radio call. I’d also absolutely love to be able to actually watch more games live, rather than just the ones that happen to be scheduled on a Friday or Saturday in North America.

There’s a natural flipside to that, though: none of the games ever start too late for me. (Call it a West Coast Bias? :D) The odd midday-on-a-Sunday game is kind of weirdly fun to get up early to watch part of before starting work on a Monday morning. I’m generally too cheap to use my mobile phone data to stream video at work on my lunch break, but if it’s an actual-west-coast game I’ll usually get home in time to watch the third period – and then have the rest of my evening free. Honestly? It’s a pretty sweet deal.

…and let’s face it, yelling at the TV when my team is failing to clear their zone, turning the puck over, or clownshoeing it up on a powerplay is probably a whole lot less disturbing to our neighbours when that’s happening mid-afternoon and not at midnight.

And while I can’t make any pretensions of playing myself yet — trying to learn how to skate when you’re over thirty and not terribly coordinated is, uh, an experience — there’s also something really satisfying about walking into a rink in the middle of summer.

For those of you who’ve never experienced it, summer in Auckland is humid and sticky and frequently either blisteringly hot or pouring with rain. Or sometimes both at the same time. Which makes stepping out of that into a cool, dry rink just about worth the price of admission all by itself. It also makes the five minutes after you leave the rink a study in pleasant contrasts.

I’m looking forward to the Women’s League games later this year because, well, it’s hockey, and because I have a whole lot of feelings about how awesome our female players are and how much more support they deserve. I’m also looking forward to what’s essentially some free air-conditioning while I get to watch hockey. (Thanks, Paradice!)

In a lot of ways, being an NHL fan downunder means being caught between two worlds – there’s all those establishing shots of arenas surrounded by snow around New Years, and the Winter Classic happening while we’re considering heading to the beach; there’s discussion about how patio weather makes watching hockey feel weird, but for us it’s when the weather starts to turn cool that it means it’s the playoffs and then the offseason – and if you’re lucky enough to live in an NZIHL or AIHL city, your own season starting up. There’s a little cognitive dissonance there sometimes.

In the USA, I would only wear the jersey of a team (or player) I was seeing on the ice to a game, but here a lot of fans will wear NHL gear to local games, because it’s an easy way to find like-minded people. Local friends and I tend to logo-spot like it’s an amateur sport in its own right; the guy in the Whalers hat you see on the tram, the woman wearing a hand-knit Oilers jersey in line for public skating, the young guy standing outside a bar on Cuba St with drink in hand and Coyotes t-shirt visible as we walk by.

I got a 1987 copy of the NHL Rulebook for half price because the guy at the secondhand bookstore in Hamilton is a Blues fan and we wound up emoting about how tough the Central is for twenty minutes. (The illustrations in it are hilarious, btw.) The weird and wonderful connections that the two degrees of separation factor of New Zealand can generate within our ice hockey community can be hilarious and awesome and occasionally beggar all statistical odds.

There’s a lot to like about being an NHL fan half a world away, and there’s even more to enjoy about hockey in the summer, hockey all year around. I’m looking forward to another year of having fun with all of it.

2014 NZIHL Season: Downloadable Schedule!

Just a short and sweet update from me for now — I’m hoping to get back to blogging a bit more regularly again soon, but since I’m in the middle of twelve different things right now, I’m just gonna dash on through and leave this right here:

Downloadable ics file for the 2014 NZIHL Schedule

Importing this file into your google calendar or other similar device should automatically give you the match, date, game start times (well, warm up start times) and location. It should auto populate with your local time zone for the convenience of anyone overseas who’s planning on catching the livestreams, too.

Let me know if you have any problems, and please feel free to share this widely!

Enjoy the end of the NHL season, the playoffs, and remember the NZIHL will be starting up again as well in June — looking forward to catching up with you all again then!

 

 

Wasn’t it April five minutes ago?

I just want to get a tiny, fairly personal postscript for the 2013 NZIHL season posted today — and more specifically, in a longer-than-140-characters format — before it runs the risk of being buried somewhere in the middle of the To Write List That Ate Manhattan, so here goes nothing:

I just want to take this opportunity to thank a whole bunch of people for the awesome experiences I’ve had over the 2013 NZIHL season.

In addition to being able to watch a ton of really great hockey this year — frankly, a reward in and of itself — I also had the opportunity to do commentary for a few of the games that were livestreamed this year. It’s been a ton of fun, and quite the learning curve, and I’m deeply grateful to everyone who’s tuned in and been supportive.

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Bring Back Puck!

I know, I know: long time, no blog… so I’m going to break the ice with a really quick post now and then we’ll see what happens.😀

Sometimes it’s very easy for people to make mock of the NHL preseason — rosters are a little half-hearted, there’s only pride on the line and no one wants to get injured, and all that kind of thing, but as a new fan I still find that all really interesting in and of itself. Mileage may vary on that, I know.

In contrast, the hockey scene in New Zealand is still small enough that the NZIHL preseason is something that I think everyone should be excited about, regardless. As well as a chance to check out new rosters – and new imports, when they’ve been able to arrive ahead of time! – it is, simply speaking, a chance to get to watch more hockey.

And frankly, I don’t think any of us get to see enough hockey down under to be able to take that for granted, so I for one am definitely excited to be heading out tonight to catch the Botany Swarm taking on the West Auckland Admirals (and I apologise in advance for when I trip up and call them the Avondale Admirals by mistake, because who am I to stand in the way of alliteration!) in their first preseason game tonight.

It sounds like the weekend’s opening match between the Canterbury Red Devils and the Dunedin Thunder was a bit of a barn-burner (8-5? I think?), so I guess for the goalies’ sakes I hope the scoreline up here in Auckland doesn’t follow suit, but I’m definitely excited to see what everyone does this season…

 

(And go the Swarm!)

Wear That On Your Sleeve: Swarm vs Admirals//Monday 27th August [recap]

What’s that, this game was almost three months ago? Uhhh… oops. But hey, I once wrote up an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three years after the fact, so let’s just roll with this and get on to it.

When last we left the 2012 NZIHL regular season, the Botany Swarm had broken a losing streak of mumblelookletsjustnotthinkaboutitokay by defeating the West Auckland Admirals 6-3 in one of the more exciting games of the season, destroying the Admirals’ hope of a season sweep.

The final game for both Auckland teams – and the final NZIHL regular season game full stop – saw a rematch on the Monday night, contrary to the usual Saturday-Sunday scheduling out at the Avondale rink, and it certainly made my work day go faster to have hockey to look forward to at the end. With a frankly stunning six game misconducts having been handed out on the Sunday night, both teams would be working with a short bench, a factor which would affect the injury-ravaged Swarm far more acutely, and one which would certainly appear to have impacted the outcome of the game.

The eventual score was 6-4 to the Admirals, as they came back from a 3-1 deficit and closed out their season with a home victory. And due to the excellent efforts of Slapshot Productions, this game is actually available for viewing on YouTube. [Warning: video will autoplay!] I haven’t had a chance to sit down and watch it in full myself yet, but I plan to do so and then revisit this post to see what other observations – or changed ones! – I might want to add after a chance to review.

The Swarm had the clear advantage through the first period, with KC Ball and Andrew Hay scoring to take Botany to a 2-0 lead, before Frazer Ellis was able to pot a short-handed goal in the last two minutes to get the Admirals on the board.

The Swarm looked strong initially going into the second, stretching out to a two goal lead again on the back of an Ian Wannamaker goal at even strength, but the Admirals were able to put extra pressure on in the latter half of the period, with Edward Commons, Ryan Blouin and Sam Moses all scoring goals to give the Admirals the lead going into the third period.

The Admirals’ domination on the scoreboard continued, with Ellis scoring his second, and Gareth McLeish icing it with a powerplay goal with three minutes remaining. The Swarm were able to get one more in the final frame, with Keegan Harnett scoring on the power play with just under three minutes remaining, but weren’t able to close the gap any further.

Despite the loss, the Swarm made a valiant effort in what was the closest thing to a war of attrition on ice that I’ve ever seen. I have to commend the team for the clear demonstration of discipline and intensity of their effort, as there really was no point where they gave up on the game. It also has to be mentioned that by the end of the game they were down to ten skaters in total, and played the majority of the game with only four defensemen after Maxime Bettez – who had been playing forward that game anyway – was injured in the first period, and Sam Boniface was given a game misconduct in the third period.  I’ve never wished for the ability to easily examine TOI in the NZIHL more. Damn, guys. That looked exhausting.

To conclude, and speaking as a thoroughly partisan observer — while it sucked out loud to lose this one, I think the fact the game was as close as it was (and that Botany held the lead for just over half the game!) really does speak well for the team, and I could not have been prouder of them.

Better luck next year, guys.

As usual,  after the jump I’ll go into a bit more detail on the play-by-play. Reading it in the voice of your favourite commentators is totally optional.

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