LCS Hockey: Born Again
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July 18, 2019
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Where Have All the Shadows Gone?

When I was watching the Capitals-Penguins series, I wondered why Dan Bylsma wasn’t shadowing Alexander Ovechkin. It seemed like the obvious coaching tactic when facing such a pure shooter.

But then it occurred to me I hadn’t seen a coach employ a true shadow since, well, I couldn’t remember when.

For the uninitiated, a shadow does exactly what the name implies. He follows his assigned target all over the ice, sticking to him no matter where he goes regardless of puck position. His only concern is denying his man space, and if he can make the guy’s life miserable in the process, all the better.

Shadowing was all the rage back in the day. I was going to research the ploy’s exact history, but a quick search found a recent article on the very subject. So read all about it…

"The Shadow Knows" by Glen R. Goodhand

In the late 1980s and early 90s, Esa Tikkanen was the game’s premier shadow. He elevated agitation to an art form, inspiring Score to create a special “Shadow” card to commemorate his defensive exploits. It was real swank. They made one for Jan Erixson, too. It seemed every team tried to have a similar defensive specialist on the payroll.

No one faced more shadows than Mario Lemieux. The Hartford Whalers once shadowed him when the Penguins were on the power play. I can’t recall the exact details, but I do remember the Whale having someone directly in front of Lemieux at all times, so Mario actually left the zone and stood at center ice. His shadow did the same, allowing the likes of Ron Francis, Kevin Stevens, Jaromir Jagr, and Larry Murphy to work a 4-on-3 power play. The Pens scored, and no one else ever tried it again.

But when I was watching Washington’s power play, I must admit, the thought did cross my mind. Ovechkin is the clear triggerman, and his shot is so overpowering, why not just eliminate him from the equation? And because of the lame overtime rules, teams are more accustomed to killing 4-on-3s today than they were back then. It’s at least interesting to consider.

Or do today’s obstruction rules make shadowing impossible? One doesn’t necessarily have to hook and hold to shadow. It can be done with skating and positioning alone.

I believe the true death knell for the shadow was the neutral zone trap. The New Jersey Devils were the first to embrace the strict defensive scheme, and it required a team commitment. No room for freelancing. The three forwards had to work in concert to spring the trap. Instead of a shadow, the Devils opted to match defensemen against opposing forwards, with Scott Stevens drawing the top superstars.

Once the Devils had success, everyone copied what they did, and expansion only diluted the talent and put a greater emphasis on team defense as opposed to individual matchups.

If the shadow wasn’t dead by the time the lockout ended, the new standard in penalty enforcement certainly finished the job. But have we seen the last of the shadow? Could a daring coach resurrect the idea from the ashes?

Somewhere, Tikkanen is praying.

Then again, God probably can’t understand a word he’s saying, so don’t worry about it.

LCS Hockey: Born Again
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