Shift hits the fan for Sens

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:06 AM ET

Hockey, for the most part, is a game that defies the numbers, unlike say, baseball where everything can be quantified and a player's worth determined.

Guys who score a lot of goals in hockey aren't necessarily the key to winning.

Guys who don't score a lot of goals sometimes are.

What matters in hockey are the big numbers, ultimately, wins and losses and points in the standings.

How do you quantify the value of a fine defensive defenceman like the Senators' Chris Phillips?

Bob Gainey never had numbers that stood out with the Canadiens, but there was no question he was one of the best in the game.

But there are times and circumstances where numbers can reveal some interesting insights in hockey and give an indication of where a player or team is at in their evolution.

We'll call these "small numbers," and they can shed a lot of light into the corners of the big picture.

The Senators gave up a crucial point Saturday night in their shootout loss to the Maple Leafs and the small numbers tell a story there.

It's not a good omen when it comes to evaluating if this team's players have the discipline and commitment required to win in April, May and June.

There was a goal at 14:52 of the second period, scored by Leafs captain Mats Sundin, you'll remember, and it gave the Leafs a 2-0 lead.

The Senators had to stage a furious rally in the third period to overcome the deficit and then lost in the shootout.

How big that lost point will be remains to be seen.

The Sundin goal came with a couple of tired Senators players on the ice, forwards Antoine Vermette and Mike Comrie, and the goal ended shifts that totalled 131 and 144 seconds for them, respectively (you can check out the shift lengths by going to NHL.com/scores and click on TOI).

That is a ridiculously long time to be on the ice unless your name is Wayne Gretzky and this is 1987, not 2007.

In the cruelest terms, it is selfish because it puts the team in a vulnerable position.

A tired player cannot move as fast, think as fast or react as fast as a fresher opponent. Tired legs and heaving lungs mean the brain doesn't work as well, either.

The mantra in today's NHL is get on the ice, go hard and get off.

When the fresh opponent is the other team's best player -- and one of the best in the league -- it's a bad combination. That's what happened Saturday night.

Senators coach Bryan Murray said the target shift length for his players is 45 seconds.

"Forty-five seconds is about what the body can handle. A player can go pretty good for 45 seconds. An exceptional player might be able to go for a minute," said Murray. "At 45 seconds, the player can recover and be ready to go back on the ice at a ratio of one in three shifts. If they go longer than that, it can affect them for the rest of the game."

Murray allowed that there are situations when players get trapped on the ice and cannot get to the bench because to do so would leave the team exposed defensively.

He understands that.

But it is difficult to imagine a circumstance where there wasn't an opportunity to get to the bench in a period of better than two minutes.

Shift length is one of those things that indicates a level of discipline and commitment to a team.

It was interesting that particular situation arose in the game because at the morning skate Saturday, Leafs coach Paul Maurice was complimenting the Senators on the fact they were disciplined in their shift lengths.

A lack of judgment for just a few seconds and a goal is scored. The other team is going to score goals. It happens. There's no shame in being beaten on a good play by the other side, especially by the other side's best player.

But there is no reason to make it any easier than it has to be for the other team, especially for the other team's best player.

"The players have to buy in for team success," said Murray. "It's an issue that's been addressed."

It was certainly addressed to a certain extent Saturday night. Neither Comrie nor Vermette had a shift in the second period after Sundin's goal.

Maybe they just needed all that time to recover from their marathon.


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