Too good to waste

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:27 AM ET

RALEIGH, N.C. -- On the ice, this is a new National Hockey League. The game has changed and the most successful teams are the ones who quickly came to terms with that fact.

They learned how to deal with the new tone of officiating and, from that, how to get the most from their skill players.

But the one area that seems to be virgin territory, still available for exploitation next season, is the five-on-three.

Trailing 3-1 against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup final heading into Game 5 tonight, the Edmonton Oilers are in trouble, and it's primarily because of ineffectiveness of their power play.

But more specifically, the Oilers are in trouble because they can't capitalize on five-on-three situations.

At one time in the NHL's development, five-on-threes were rare. But there were some coaches, the legendary Scott Bowman being one of them, who became infuriated if his players shot from the point during such a situation.

Bowman felt that if the point man was under no pressure, he should move in until a checker came to him. At that point, he should pass it off to create a four-on-two down low.

But whether the point men got involved in five-on-three play or not, the principle didn't vary. Get the puck down low and move it around there, making the most of the numerical advantage to create a short-range, high-percentage shot.

Times have changed in the NHL. The point men don't have the time they were once accorded, and, with the new style of rule enforcement, checkers can get to the point in a hurry because they can't be restrained.

Also, the defenders are much better at clogging the lanes than they used to be.

So now, the point man gets the puck and if he has a clear lane, he takes the shot. That's rare. Usually, there is no lane.

At that point, he'll either pass it to his defence partner or bank it off the boards behind the net.

In neither case is a scoring opportunity created.

Today's players, when awarded a long five-on-three, seem to assume the attitude that there's plenty of time and that they therefore have the luxury of making a perfect play.

They want to pass it around on the periphery until an ideal play opens up. Defenders are quite willing to let them do so.

The Oilers certainly are not the only guilty parties. When they defeated the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the previous round, the final game ended in a two-man Edmonton disadvantage that the Ducks killed with astonishing effectiveness. They moved the puck around the outside while the Oilers waited for the attack and the clock ticked down.

Now, in successive games, the Oilers have committed a similar error.

Some observers suggest that Edmonton doesn't have enough skill to make the most of the situation against the Hurricanes. But they have Ales Hemsky and Sergei Samsonov, two forwards who are as good one-on-one as any in the league. They have Chris Pronger on the point. They have Ryan Smyth near the net. How much do you need?

But if Hemsky refuses to shoot, Samsonov is making drop passes, Pronger is killing the clock with a leisurely approach, and Smyth is somewhere other than the edge of the crease, is it any wonder the five-on-three is unproductive?

The problem is not one of talent, it's one of unfamiliarity with the situation. So next season, expect coaches -- in Edmonton and elsewhere -- to devote more time to the two-man advantage because it clearly is fertile ground.

In today's NHL, practice time is limited, especially for Western teams, and, because of the parity, there are many areas that require constant attention.

But watch for the five-on-three to move up the list of coaches' priorities. It's too good an opportunity to waste this way.


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