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Hockey is a five-on-five game

And that’s why some of the Leafs-Lightning playoff games haven’t felt like hockey.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game One Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Game Five of the Maple Leafs vs the Lightning series felt like a long drink of water after a trek through the desert. We can all see what’s going on in these games: Penalty calls are way up, the games are full of overlapping power plays, and the five-on-five minutes in this series have been:

  1. 33:42
  2. 41:33
  3. 43:57
  4. 36:55
  5. 42:43

The games have felt like early regular season when the crackdown of the year is on and everyone is going off for slashing or cross-checking or faceoff violations, depending on the year on the calendar. No one was expecting this, and some teams have responded faster than others to the change. Some teams have the special teams skill to take advantage of the situation, or at least withstand it. Some don’t.

My question, after the very enjoyable Game Five where the final period was almost entirely five-on-five, was how different was that game to the others. The minutes spent in each game state can’t really tell the full story. Game Five isn’t even the one with the most five-on-five time. The story is more complicated.

If the normal minutes come in little shards interspersed between power plays, that’s not going to create gameflow. If there’s almost never time for a shift change before a stoppage, that’s different from long stretches like the third period on Tuesday night.

I felt like Game Four was the worst of the series. To me, it stopped being a hockey game, and I think that, as well as the score, was one reason why Leafs fans were so very upset by the loss. But how you feel about a game is very influenced by the goals, the order things happen in, and a host of other factors. So I decided to do a rudimentary tracking of the game state across all five games, and ignore the score while focusing on flow.

I used the Evolving Hockey play-by-play query tool to give me just enough information to plot out the changes in game state. I set the y axis the same on each graph to give you a feel for the scale differences, and all the five-on-five bars are red. The duration is seconds, so remember that one period is 1,200 seconds, and a game is 3,600. Normal shift length in the NHL today runs about 40-45 seconds so the first line at 250 seconds is one and a half times through the lineup.

Game One set the tone for the first four. The whistle never stopped blowing, and the play never got flowing. But notice the longer stretches without penalties at the end of the game just like we’re used to.

Game Two had two longer stretches of five-on-five, and had a decent amount at the start without a penalty, but otherwise, the segments between special teams work were only a few shifts long.

Game Three was simpler, with fewer calls, and a lot of five-on-five late in the game. It was close to what we now consider normal in the NHL. But the flow didn’t get going until the second period.

Game Four actually was a bizarre game of alternating penalty calls through almost the entire second and third period. It was boring, frustrating, and there was more standing around discussing who was going to the box or why than there was playing. I hated it, and I quit watching it, not because of the score entirely, but also because it’s not hockey to me. I don’t enjoy analyzing power play technique, and while the Leafs PK is fun, it’s more like a stunt than anything I take seriously.

Game Four, if that became the standard, would destroy the watchablility of the sport. I understand when there’s hits and line brawls, like in Game One, that it can all get tedious. This wasn’t like that. This game was a run of tripping and slashing calls, a great many of them deserved, but also, both teams were taking these calls, a kind that usually comes to the losing side that’s chasing the play.

The opening 484 seconds, or eight minutes, was the longest stretch of five-on-five in the game.

Game Five looks somewhat similar at first, and my sense while watching the game, was that the Leafs were able to come back because of the switch at the half to mostly five-on-five play. The second longest five-on-five bar comes near the end of the second period and runs into the third.

This was, for me, the closest thing to a full hockey game in the series, although Game Three almost got there in the end. The final period on Tuesday, so mesmerizing as chances and goals were traded off, was about two teams playing their hardest. It was finally time for linematching and coaching. It was goalies duelling, the crowd entranced by every moment. It was a hockey game. Win or lose, it was finally worth watching.

I don’t know how much of what we’re seeing in this series is an obvious change in refereeing instructions, and how much of it is boneheaded Maple Leafs who can’t stop tripping, holding, slashing and generally being so afraid of making a mistake, they take penalties in bunches. Tampa is parading to the box too. And other series are like this as well, particularly Boston - Carolina.

I don’t know what the NHL is seeking to accomplish here, but for all I’d like to see some consistency in how games are called, this isn’t that! The end of the game is when the whistle stops blowing, even in the worst examples. You can feel the makeup calls coming before they arrive. It’s not a different refereeing paradigm, it’s just more. Extra more.

I want penalties called — with some discretion for accidental contact — but I enjoyed the hockey game on Tuesday. I’d like to see more of them.