The Need for Speed
Written by Pac Pobric • Illustrated by Keenan Wells
It was like something out of a video game.
On November 6 at Madison Square Garden, the New York Rangers were looking for their fourth straight win of the season in a match against the Montreal Canadiens. The score was 3–3 with less than three minutes remaining in the third period. In the New York defensive zone, following a tepid Montreal push, Rangers defenseman Neal Pionk collected the puck to the left of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin followed closeby on his right.
In a brief burst, Pionk spun around Drouin and took off along the left-side boards, breezing into the neutral zone, skating past his own defenseman, across center ice, into the Montreal zone, blowing through traffic, picking up speed the whole way, rocketing along the boards to spin toward Canadiens goaltender Carey Price. Montreal was nowhere, Pionk had his head up, gliding across the field, cruising and gaining speed, flying without interruption until he crashed into Price, flipping over head-first but somehow still managing to slip the puck into the net, completing an incredible, end-to-end individual effort to give New York the game-winning goal.
“I knew he was a good skater,” said Pionk’s teammate, Mika Zibanejad. “I just didn’t know he was Bobby Orr out there.”
All of a sudden, the New York Rangers have legs. After a dismal start to the season that left them with a 3–7–1 record after 11 games, they’ve picked up points in seven of their last eight matches, five of which they’ve won. No hot streak goes on forever, and their regulation loss to the New York Islanders last night is a reminder of their relative fragility. When the effort isn’t there, the win won’t be either. But the win against the Canadiens proved what they can do when they maximize their speed and play at the National League level.
This is what head coach David Quinn expects of his team. In his office in Westchester, he has a framed picture of a quote attributed to Russian hockey coach Anatoly Tarasov: “speed of hand, speed of foot, speed of mind.” This is the way the game is going. Gone are the days when the sluggish Broad Street Bullies of Philadelphia could simply fight their way to two Stanley Cups, as they did in 1974 and 1975, when they also lead the league in penalty minutes. Brawn is less an asset than ever and players are getting smaller, quicker, more agile. It’s acceleration that drives today’s best players, which means not only speed, but also the ability to read the ice and understand how to avoid pinch points. Which is exactly what Pionk did.
There’s a longer history here. Prior to the 1929–30 season, forward passing was illegal in the offensive zone, which meant that attacking players could only feed the puck to one another away from the opposing goaltender. Back then, hockey was slow; it was was more akin to rugby than anything else, the idea being that a strong player should be able to maneuver across the ice with relatively little support.
Games were low scoring. In the 1928–29 season, there were 120 shutouts through 220 total games. (At the time, there were ten teams in the league.) And in that year’s Stanley Cup Finals (at the time a best-of-three series) the Boston Bruins took the top prize against the New York Rangers while tallying only four goals in a two-game sweep.
Forward-passing fundamentally changed the game. For the first time, a player could toss the puck ahead to a rushing teammate in the offensive zone, greatly increasing the pace of play. Scoring went up. In the first season following the rule change, the average number of goals per game more than doubled over the year prior, from 1.46 to 2.96.
Further changes followed. In 1943, the league introduced a red center line across every rink. Now, a player in his defensive zone could pass the puck ahead to a teammate all the way up to center ice, making half the entire rink a potential zone of acceleration for the forward-charing player. Then, in 2005, even the red-line restriction was eliminated, and suddenly players could stretch-pass the puck across 75% of the skating surface, making the rushing forward’s speed an absolutely essential service.
That’s been the general trajectory of the NHL over the past 90 years—faster and faster (and more head injuries too). And the best players have capitalized on the advance, especially in the last 15 years. At the 2003 All Star festivities, Marian Gaborik (later a New York Rangers sniper) won honors as fastest skater; he also led the league with three hat tricks that year. The Swedish winger Carl Hagelin, who played three excellent seasons in New York, won the fastest skater honors in 2011 when it took him just over 13 second to loop around the rink. He later won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh.
For the past two years, the fastest-skater award has gone to Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers. Not coincidentally, the Edmonton ace also won the Art Ross trophy in each of those seasons as the league’s top scorer (100 points in 2017; 108 in 2018). These enormous numbers may just be an appetizer. McDavid isn’t just some guy; since he entered the NHL in 2015, he’s been widely touted as the greatest player since Sidney Crosby—and even Crosby agrees. Asked last month whom he would cite as the best player in the league today, Crosby said: “It's hard to argue [against McDavid]. He's been really consistent. He's won scoring titles, MVPs. So yeah, that's an easy one to pick."
McDavid is in another conversation. At only 21 years old, his skill set is better than that of practically any other player in the NHL, far beyond even the most talented current New York Ranger. But hockey is a team game, and even at his best, McDavid still can’t carry a lukewarm Edmonton team into the playoffs, let alone to a Stanley Cup.
The Rangers understand that situation and they play for each other. On November 6, Pionk’s goal was the game-winner against Montreal. But four other speedy players also scored for New York that night, including Mika Zibanejad, who added an insurance goal after Pionk’s tally. That’s what forward Kevin Hayes stressed to reporters in his post-game interview. Asked to reflect on the win, he looked aside for a moment and then nailed it down: “We’re building something here.”