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What Does It Mean To Play the Right Way?

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Credit: AP Photo/Tony Avelar

Hockey coaches and players always talk about playing the right way. But for many who didn’t grow up playing the game – including myself – it can be a confounding phrase, bordering on cliché.

What does “playing the right way” mean?

There were actually many instructive examples, right and wrong, in the San Jose Sharks’ 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. This win snapped San Jose’s 10-game losing streak, their longest skid in 16 years.

For one thing, playing the right way is situational awareness. For example, if you’re up 3-0 to start the third period, you might play a little more defensive. If you’re down 3-0, you might play a little more offensive.

San Jose just 3-2 late in the third period, this was Matt Nieto playing the right way.

Nieto (83) knows that Vladislav Gavrikov (44), down a goal with just two minutes to go, will likely agitate for offense. When Gavrikov pinches, Nieto chips it ahead and blows past the stationary defenseman. Gavrikov didn’t do anything wrong situationally, he just got beat by a smart player.

It’s also perfect touch by Nieto. It’s a strong-enough chip that it gets deep into the Columbus zone, but there’s enough finesse that it’s not icing.

But Nieto isn’t done. Rookie Nick Blankenburg (77) tries to keep the veteran winger from the puck. But the smallish, 5-foot-11 Nieto shows the smallish, 5-foot-9 Blankenburg a little bit of NHL strength, coming up with the puck. He then passes the puck through three Blue Jackets to a wide-open Tomas Hertl (48) in the high slot, but the puck skips over Hertl’s stick.

Jakub Voracek (93) claims it for a second, but Nieto doesn’t give up on the puck, batting it back.

“Nietsy is a straight-forward player,” captain Logan Couture said. “He adds a dimension to our team that a lot of teams need. Very, very good defensively, easy to play with. Can play up and down the line-up.”

That’s 15 seconds that Nieto has killed with the San Jose Sharks holding a slim lead and desperate for a win. And he almost created a Grade-A scoring chance to boot.

“We needed more of that,” head coach Bob Boughner said. “I thought that we turned it over a little bit in the second half of the game.”

Let’s go back to the non-hypothetical 3-0 example I offered earlier. The Sharks, up 3-0 to open the final frame, would be expected to err on the side of defense. But that’s not what happens just a minute in.

“Short-handed, seven seconds to go, you know guy’s coming out of the box. No. 1, you don’t want to miss the net, no. 2 you don’t want your defenseman to run up there,” Boughner explained.

That’s Nick Bonino (13) who misses the shot and rookie Nicolas Meloche (53) crashing the net, which creates a 2-on-1 the other way.

That’s not great situational awareness, especially from Meloche. If the Sharks were down 3-0, it’d be a different story.

Boughner continued on this theme when talking about Roslovic’s second goal. Watch the behind-the-net view at about the 15-second mark:

“We have certain people we want to play against their big line, but you can’t change in the middle of the shift when they’re coming at you,” Boughner said. “[Ryan Merkley] knew that we wanted to get the match-up, but you have to be a little more patient before you race off the ice. [Brent Burns] is trying to race on as they’re coming up. That was tough.”

Now I’m not trying to bash Meloche or Merkley, both rookie defensemen who are figuring out the NHL. I also wrote about some of the good things that they bring to the San Jose Sharks a few days ago:

What Do Meloche, Merkley Bring?

But they also have a lot to learn – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The same could be said about wunderkind Thomas Bordeleau, who has impressed with some remarkable plays in his first two NHL games.

Bordeleau (23) has his head up looking for Rudolfs Balcers (92) before he even gets to the loose puck – then he dishes it by three Blue Jackets to Balcers.

“He’s got not only a great skill,” Boughner volunteered, “but also a great brain for the game.”

But the 2020 second-round pick, like so many young turks, still has to learn to play the right way at this level.

Up 3-2 with five minutes to go, a hope pass to Noah Gregor (73) in the middle of the neutral zone is not the right play. This would eventually lead to almost a minute of Columbus possession in the San Jose zone. Again, if you’re down 3-0, it’s a different story.

While Boughner was complimentary of Bordeleau’s game tonight, he noted another example of not-so-great situational awareness from the young centerman.

“I talked to him a few times on the bench tonight,” Boughner shared. “There was one play, early in the first period, where we were running around a bit, and it was a 50-50 puck, he got there first. He exposed the puck and tried to make a play to the middle, and it got knocked back.

“It was a place, we talked about on the bench, where you turn your body, you shield yourself a little more, and you protect the puck, so now maybe you can make a play underneath. Those are the little things that he’s going to learn as he plays here.”

There’s a balance here, right? Nobody is saying that a Bordeleau or a Merkley shouldn’t be creative. Shouldn’t push the envelope offensively. But you’ve got to, while doing that, not put your team in too many holes. That’s how you become a net positive impact player as opposed to net negative who’s easily replaceable despite a few flashes of brilliance here and there.

“Some young mistakes out there,” the bench boss conceded, happy to come out with the San Jose Sharks’ first win in over three weeks.

“He will learn from that,” an NHL scout who took in the night’s action noted of the Bordeleau neutral zone turnover that I clipped. He thought the young pivot was “average overall” last night but with flashes of a “creative mind, good skill, and vision.”

For what it’s worth, Boughner says that Bordeleau is a quick study: “When you tell him, he’s like, I know, I know. He already knows what you’re going to tell him, which is a good sign.”

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