Saturday, April 19, 2014

So what does it take to win?

It's the 3rd period of Game 7.  You are trailing 4-1 with only 10 minutes left. Things are not looking good at all.  The home crowd is stunned silent.  All hope seems lost.  Then in a flash, quicker than you can blink, the score is tied as we go to overtime.  Then in quick fashion, you win in overtime.  Who saw this coming?

It's Game 5 of the Conference Semis.  You're the top seed.  You find yourself down 3-1 and on the brink of elimination.  You have no choice but to find a way to win or else it's all over.  For the balance of four games, your team hasn't played anywhere near where it could.  Then in a flash, your best player takes over, helps you win Game 5.  Then that propels you to winning both Games 6 and 7 to advance on.

Of course, the two teams I'm talking about above are last year's Stanley Cup Finalists: The Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks.

We are here today to talk about the topic of what does it take to win in this day and age of hockey.  Gone are the days of dominate, multiple Cup winning teams, like the Edmonton Oilers or the New York Islanders.  Gone too are the days of wide open, high scoring hockey.  It's simply a different kind of game today.  What it took to win back then is distinctly different than what it takes to win today.  More often than not, the clear best team won.  Now, that is hardly ever the case.

Want proof?  Name the last team to win the Stanley Cup and the President's trophy in the same season?  It happens to be last year's Blackhawks team (in a shortened season).  Since 1992-1993, which is 20 seasons excluding the lockout, the team that won the President's trophy has won the Stanley Cup 6 times (including last year's Blackhawks). That is only 30% of the time for you math majors.  In fact, here's the complete breakdown of the fate of President Trophy winning teams:

Win Stanley Cup Finals: 6
Lose Stanley Cup Finals: 2
Lose Conference Finals: 5
Lose Conference Semis: 1
Lose Conference Quarters: 6

Couple of interesting things to note here:

1. Teams made the Cup Finals less than half the time (8 of 20)
2. Teams had same odds of losing in 1st round as they did winning the Cup. (30%)
3. Odds of getting to at least the Conference Finals was decent (65%)

Now that we have this detail, it should give you a perspective about just how hard winning this tournament is.  You have to factor in so many different variables.  Some examples of those are the match ups, injuries, execution, skill, and luck, among many others.  Let's now look at a couple of different variables and see how it can play out.

1. Match ups:  This is a big one.  Every team has a weakness.  The size of the weakness may vary, but the weakness is still there.  Depending on a match up, one team may be able to better expose your weakness than another.  This year, I submit the Detroit/Boston series as an example.  This match up for Boston presents them with challenges.  Detroit can bring an element of speed that can neutralize Boston's physical style of play.  Now does that mean Boston can't beat Detroit?  I'm not saying that.  I'm just saying that Detroit better exposes a potential weakness to Boston's game.  Here is another example, and I'll use the Penguins/Blue Jackets series to explain.  Pittsburgh has a great power play.  Columbus' penalty kill has been better, but can be exposed.  Pittsburgh presents a match up concern in that part of the game.  I'm not saying that Columbus can't stop the Pens Power Play, I'm just saying that Pittsburgh has a better chance of exposing this part of the game than someone else who has a weaker Power Play.  In fact, that's why in my opinion, the Rangers would have been a better match up for Columbus.

2. Injuries: This of course must be factored in.  Whether it is in the form of players getting healthy for the playoffs, or players playing hurt, or getting injured during the playoffs.  Depending on the severity of the injury, a team's performance can be greatly impacted.  Those that deal with this element the best generally have the best chance of winning.

3. Execution: You have to execute.  Just because the paper says you can do it, doesn't mean anything if you can't make it happen on the ice.  This is self explanatory.  Yet, it is important to point out.  Prime example of this would be Bob in Game 1.  If he stops Brandon Sutter's GWG, who knows what happens after. Or how about the disappearance of Corey Perry from last year's playoffs?  His lack of execution led the Ducks to the playoff exits.  One can never underestimate how big executing your game plan is.

4. Skill: This of course is a part of any series.  Every team has skill to varying degrees.  A lot of fans look at this as the end all when it comes to trying to predict a series.  It doesn't always work that way, in fact, it rarely works that way.  The Pens have skill.  Yet, why do they keep getting bounced from the playoffs?  Reread the above to understand why.  And please don't tell me it's all on Marc Andre Fleury.  Yes, he is part of the issue, but not the whole thing.  Pittsburgh does not match up well with Boston and it's style of play. They don't have the speed Detroit has. They couldn't execute anything defensively, which led to many Grade A scoring chances on Fleury, very few of which anyone could stop.  Skill is a factor, just be careful that you make sure you include the other factors too.

5. Luck: You can't ignore this one.  Things happen.  You can't predict them. But man, it can alter the outcome of a series in a flash.  A bouncing puck, a ricochet off the boards in front of your net, are just some of the many "lucky" things that can happen.  Great teams find a way to be in position to take advantage of these situations.  If you are in position, that lucky bounce can literally make a hero out of you.  I just think back to some Cup winning goals to illustrate this.  Uwe Krupp (remember him?), slap shot from the blue line, through all that traffic to beat Florida in Game 4 1996.  How does that puck get through? Regardless, he was in position to be successful. As luck would have it, that moment defined a franchise. Or how about Brett Hull in 1999, the in the crease goal against Dominik Hasek? That referee should have disallowed the goal, right?  But as luck would have it, goal stands, and Dallas owns a Stanley Cup.  I can keep going, but you see the point.

Think of winning as putting the above ingredients in a blender, and making a smoothie out of it.  The right combination of things gets the job done.  What should you take from this?  Never forget how hard hockey is. Never forget how much every player wants to win. Never forget how hard it is to win.  When the team does win, it is worth celebrating, because what they just accomplished was hard to do.  Remember, the competition night in and night out are the best players in the world.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.  Just making these playoffs is an accomplishment in itself, given you had to make it through 82 grueling games.  Remember as well that anyone can beat anyone on any given night. With so many variables constantly in play, there is always a chance.  Some chances may be better than others, but there is always a chance. Don't ever give up as a fan until that final horn goes off, or that goal in overtime is scored.  Winning involves so many things. It is for this reason that hockey is the greatest sport in the world.  Enjoy the moment, and enjoy what the Jackets are building here.  Sooner rather than later, winning will be a constant in the beautiful city of Columbus.

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