by Joe Tasca on 02/16/12 at 08:59 AM ET
For years, I’ve marveled at the power of the sports narrative. Pundits and reporters make a living trying to explain why a particular game panned out the way it did, how individual athletes performed, or failed to perform, in the heat of battle, and what intangible factors contribute to success.
What’s interesting about these narratives is that, although they’re often compelling, there’s usually no conclusive evidence to support the provided explanations. That, in itself, is perfectly fine, as there’s nothing wrong with expressing an opinion. The problem is many misnomers are routinely accepted as fact, despite the lack of proof.
For example, almost every sports fan believes Baltimore Ravens place kicker Billy Cundiff choked when he shanked what would have been the game-tying field goal in the AFC Championship game against New England last month. Everyone seems to believe Cundiff would’ve converted that same attempt had a trip to the Super Bowl not been on the line.
What almost everyone failed to consider is the possibility that Cundiff simply missed the kick by chance. This explanation simply doesn’t make sense, especially considering Cundiff is a ten-year pro who’s booted countless field goals from much lengthier distances. It seems almost impossible to believe he could’ve missed a chip shot without a definitive cause.
After the game, Cundiff said there was no excuse for the missed kick. It’s a predictable response, and virtually everyone dismissed it, concluding that Cundiff simply didn’t have the courage to admit he gagged under the gun. When it comes right down to it, nobody would accept Cundiff’s explanation because it defies logic. It also doesn’t fit the traditional sports narrative, which assumes there’s an identifiable reason for everything.
In many ways, trying to explain sport is a fool’s game. Hockey, in particular, poses a great challenge, even to the most seasoned spectator. Over the years, pundits and coaches have concocted a series of general assumptions about successful hockey teams. These beliefs are widely accepted, not necessarily because they represent the truth, but because they make sense, at least in theory.
One common assumption is that a hockey team needs to have a successful power play in order to win consistently. This myth was debunked last spring when the Bruins captured the Stanley Cup, despite owning the worst playoff power play percentage in league history. In fact, in beating the Canadiens in the opening round, Boston became the first team in NHL history to win a seven-game playoff series without scoring a single power play goal.
An argument can be made that it’s much more important for a hockey team to be incredibly successful five-on-five than with the man advantage. Most of a hockey game is played at even strength, so a team with great prowess on the power play will inevitably have a poor season if it gives up a slew of goals at even strength. Relying on a strong power play just won’t get the job done, especially in a playoff series.
The Canadiens scored seven power play goals and one shorthanded goal against the Bruins this past spring. The problem is they gave up 17 even strength tallies, while scoring only nine. What’s worth noting is that if Montreal would’ve won the series, their strong special teams would’ve gotten all the credit, while the Bruins would’ve been crucified for their inept power play. Instead, the narrative after the series revolved around the clutch play of Tim Thomas in Boston’s three overtime wins.
Another common hockey myth revolves around the importance of faceoffs. Coaches, players, and pundits alike love to emphasize the critical need to win faceoffs during the course of a game. Regardless of where the draw is taking place, the status of manpower on the ice, or how much time is left on the clock, it’s generally believed that winning the majority of faceoffs in a hockey game will lead to more puck possession, and subsequently, more goals.
It’s a ridiculous notion, to say the least. Faceoffs, for the most part, have absolutely no bearing on a hockey game. Just last week, Buffalo pounded the Bruins 6-0, and in so doing, won 21 faceoffs. Boston, on the other hand, won 45 faceoffs. To boot, the Sabres were also out-shot, out-hit, and had more giveaways. But they also converted on their scoring chances, which accounts for the lopsided victory.
The only time a faceoff is imperative is when a team is trailing by a goal with a minute or so remaining in the game. It’s obvious why winning a faceoff is vital in this particular scenario, as the team in question desperately needs to score, and it needs possession of the puck in order to do so. However, at no other point during a game is it absolutely necessary to win the draw. Over the course of 60 minutes, maintaining puck possession is much more critical to success than gaining puck possession.
Probably the best-known hockey adage emphasizes the need to score the first goal. Indeed, statistics indicate teams that score the game-opening goal win the vast majority of hockey games, but it’s debatable whether the first goal is any more important than the other markers tallied during the course of a match. In fact, it can be argued that the second goal is more likely to determine the final outcome.
It’s easy to see why the second goal in a hockey game is crucial. If the team that’s leading gets it, the margin becomes two, forcing the opposing team to score at least three goals to win the game. Considering all but five NHL clubs average less than three goals per game, that prospect is a daunting one, indeed. Conversely, if the team trailing in a 1-0 affair produces the game’s second goal, the score is now tied, thus negating the supposed advantage gained by the squad that drew first blood.
If a team that scores first wins a 5-4 hockey game, there’s no reason to believe the first goal was any more important than the fifth. In fact, to even suggest as much would be absurd. But what’s not considered is that it’s just as absurd to suggest the fifth goal was any more vital than the first. In a one-goal game, all the goals are important because they were all necessary. It doesn’t matter when they were scored or in what order.
In the end, the notion of a winning formula is a nothing more than a fairy tale. Although we don’t like to admit it, hockey is very much a game of random chance. Most of what happens on the ice is simply inexplicable, but only a trained scientist would accept that interpretation. We refuse to accept the idea that things sometimes happen for no reason at all, despite our best efforts to explain the results.
Trying to explain the outcome of a hotly-contested sporting event after the fact makes for a lively discussion, but the fact of the matter is we’ll never truly know the real story. We’ll never know for sure why Billy Cundiff missed his shot at glory last month. We’ll never know for sure why the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. We’ll never know for sure why the greatest hockey player in the world suffered a series of debilitating injuries in the prime of his career.
It doesn’t matter. As the great physicist Richard Feynman once said, “I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”
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About Tasca's Take
Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.
Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.