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Tasca's Take

Beyond Belief

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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Comments

Mandingo's avatar

Really good post. I agree with you on pretty much all of your points.

I’ve always thought people overestimate the importance of faceoff percentage and power play proficiency. Not saying they’re not important, but I don’t think they’re anywhere near as important as people make them out to be.

Posted by Mandingo from The Garage on 02/16/12 at 11:35 AM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

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.

Well then what do the statistics argue about the percentage of hockey games won by the team scoring the 2nd goal?

It’s a bit dishonest to say that a lot of the concepts that teams and pundits emphasize are done so based on sense rather than data.

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.

So you have one hockey game over the course of thousands which disproves the concept that getting the puck has a high correlation with winning the hockey game?  Faceoffs (for the most part) had no bearing in THAT hockey game, but the broken thinking is yours in using that as your prime example to ascribe to all hockey games.

You’re absolutely right in that there are things that are beyond anybody’s control which will affect the outcome of a hockey game. Teams which are outplayed will sometimes win.  But to say there’s no winning formula is naive.  There’s no FOOLPROOF winning formula in sports, but there are ways that more successful teams consistently win than the less successful ones and that is done by controlling the things that they are able to control.

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 02/16/12 at 12:20 PM ET

Mandingo's avatar

I think the point is that a lot of what are considered “universal truths” in sports are often proven to be not nearly as universal (or important) as they’re made out to be.The accepted wisdom that “you can’t win if you can’t run the football” or “defense wins championships,” for instance, are often proven wrong.

I think a lot pundits and fans tend to look at things that are easily quantifiable (like PP and face off wins) with more import than they probably deserve. That’s not to say they aren’t important, just that people think that because you can assign a statistic to something, that automatically makes it a “key to the game.” But there are thousands of unquantifiable occurrences that happen in every sporting event that are likely just as important.

Posted by Mandingo from The Garage on 02/16/12 at 12:51 PM ET

MOWingsfan19's avatar

I agree about the over-emphasis on alot of stats. They’re good tools for trends and comparing easily quantified things, but they’re not set in stone.
As Bill Clement said so well about Stevie Y in 02 playing on one leg….
“There’s one thing you can’t defend… and that’s courage”.
That little ditty right there explains alot of the how & why some teams excel when all measurable stats & pundit declarations say that team shouldn’t win.

Posted by MOWingsfan19 from I really like our team on 02/16/12 at 01:42 PM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

If lazy platitudes are the problem (and I agree that they are), then fine. But replacing them with opposite-but-equally-as-wrong platitudes about how measurable things have NO impact is just as big a mistake.

There’s also a bit of mixing of whether we’re discussing cause or effect here.

The argument for the need to score the first goal is part of that. It’s well proven (by the fact that the game doesn’t immediately end after the first goal and that no team in the league has a 1.000 winning % when they do that), that winning the first goal is absolutely necessary to success, but it’s much easier for a coach, player, or commentator to say than to mouth out the much-more-correct-but-horribly-wordy “This team would enjoy a statistically greater chance of winning, I believe, if they were to score the first goal”.  All but three teams in the league win more than half the games in which they score first (My God, Minnesota…). 

To even discuss that, we have to consider which piece is the cause of which in the first goal/win the game discussion.  Do teams that score first win much more often because they scored that first goal, or do teams that win more often tend to score the first goal because they’re the winning team?  Going simply on stats in a game-by-game basis, there’s a 100% correlation between being credited with more goals than your opposition (not SCORING more, though, as the shootout guarantees a team can be credited with a goal they didn’t really score). Based only on statistics, a team that has more goals at the end of the game is more likely to have scored the first one, so which is the cause here and which is the effect?

Besides, stats gives us all something to bitch about when our team is in first place…

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 02/16/12 at 02:07 PM ET

perfection's avatar

I’m with J.J. on this one. of course looking at any specific game, you can draw all sorts of conclusions that may or may not statistically hold up over ALL hockey games. Sure a team who is out shot, out hit, with more giveaways and more lost faceoffs can still pull out wins, in fact, I think winning these kinds of games is what separates great teams (EVERYONE can win when they’re dominating. It’s much harder to win when things aren’t going so well.)

but while I’m not about to research the statistics, my guess is that if you took every game in NHL history, faceoffs and wins DO actually correspond statistically.

also, even in a single game, there are definitely more instances when faceoffs matter a lot besides in the last minute. How about when defending a 5 on 3? Or even the last few seconds of the first two periods when a last second goal can completely alter the momentum of a game. Or right at the end of a power play when you either get one more setup with the extra man or the other team gets to send the guy coming out of the box on a breakaway? Or right after icings when a team is totally gassed? these situations may be somewhat unquantifiable, but they happen every game and those faceoffs not only matter, but regularly affect the outcomes of games.

Posted by perfection from LaLaLand on 02/16/12 at 02:18 PM ET

Avatar

Scoring the first goal changes the game. Team that’s behind has to take more risks. If two puck-possession teams play, first goal can be just one goal. But if defense-first team is behind, that team has to open up.

Posted by Davor on 02/16/12 at 08:05 PM ET

tuxedoTshirt's avatar

Great post. Great responses.  I just have one, obvious, thing to add:

why the Bruins won the Stanley Cup

Coley.

Posted by tuxedoTshirt from the Home of the 1937 World Champions on 02/17/12 at 03:00 AM ET

Avatar

Nice post Joe:

1) Winning faceoffs does not correlate with winning. Lousy faceoff teams win and good ones lose. If faceoffs were important, there would be statistical evidence that this is so. Nobody has been able to find any.

In fact this is not counter-intuitive. A faceoff is simply one battle for the puck among hundreds of battles in a game. How can a relative handful of battles matter more than the vast majority of battles within a game? Particularly when the difference between a good faceoff man and a bad one might be one draw in ten?

2) The first goal of the game is no more important than any other goal. A few years back I looked at every game the Vancouver Canucks had played in their history. It turned out that the team that scored first won about 60% of the games.

At first blush, therefore, the first goal seems important. However when you look at the second goal of the game, you find that the team that scores that one also wins about 60% of the games. The team that scores the fourth game wins 60% of the time too. The fifth goal…

A goal is a goal. The rest is media billshit.

Posted by Tom Benjamin on 02/19/12 at 03:16 PM ET

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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.