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Loser’s Lament

As the conference semi-finals get underway, the post-mortem analysis has begun on the eight teams that failed to advance past the opening round.  Fans and pundits alike are trying to figure out exactly why Stanley Cup contenders like Vancouver, Boston, and Pittsburgh bowed out early, and in shocking fashion. 

Trying to rationalize sport is a complete waste of time, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.  In hockey, the loser of a playoff series receives the same general criticisms, some of which include a lack of scoring depth, shoddy defense, poor goaltending, injury problems, or all of the above.

Some writers, perhaps for the sheer sake of creativity, like to think outside the box when coming up with reasons for a team’s untimely post-season demise.  Boston Globe writer Gary Dzen went as far as to cite the much ballyhooed Stanley Cup hangover as one of the countless factors that doomed the Bruins this spring.

Considering his penchant for sterling insight, it’s surprising Dzen failed to join the legions of reporters who identified the absence of Nathan Horton as a contributor to Boston’s defeat.  TSN’s Darren Dreger was among those who claimed Horton was the missing ingredient the Bruins lacked to defend their title.

What Dreger didn’t mention during his commentary was that Boston played its best hockey of last year’s playoffs without Horton in the lineup.  While the burly winger scored the decisive goals in two of the team’s three Game 7 victories, it’s worth noting that the Bruins outscored the Canucks 21-4 after Aaron Rome knocked Horton silly early in Game 3 of the Cup final.

Interestingly enough, hockey experts made a similar argument to explain Boston’s stunning 2010 playoff loss to Philadelphia.  Centerman David Krejci broke his wrist in Game 3, which was deemed to be the turning point in a series the Bruins were dominating up to that point.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The reality is there isn’t much difference between the Boston teams of the past three seasons.  Sure, there’s been some minor turnover during that time, but the core of the roster has remained virtually the same.  The only noticeable difference, of course, is that last year’s team got all the breaks, while this year’s club and the ‘10 version had no such luck. 

When it comes right down to it, good fortune is the most important factor in playoff success.  Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli understands that, above all else, his team was lucky to win the Cup last year, and unlucky not to win it this season:

“From the makeover perspective, certainly we’re not going to do anything to makeover this team… You hear me talk about the parity in this league and our first round loss in seven games this year could be another Stanley Cup Final [appearance] next year – it’s that close.”

From a fan’s perspective, this rationale holds very little water.  A defending champion losing to a fledgling team backstopped by a third-string goaltender is seemingly indicative of a declining hockey club in need of a major facelift.  Many people would consider Chiarelli’s decision to stand pat as foolhardy. 

Count Pittsburgh beat writer Dave Molinari as one of the growing number of folks in the Steel City who think it’s time for general manager Ray Shero to re-tool the Penguins:

Shero is not one to act in haste, and appreciates the folly of basing franchise-shaping decisions on a six-game snapshot from one playoff round.

He also has to understand, though, that trends that develop over three years can’t be ignored, either.

The past few springs prove that something is wrong with this team.

The past few springs have proven nothing other than the fact the Penguins were beaten in lengthy playoff duels that could’ve gone either way.  They have an extremely deep team, ridden with youthful, skilled players that led the club to a Stanley Cup just three years ago.  Last year’s performance was a great example of how good the Pens really are, as the team finished with 106 points, despite missing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for half the season.

What, prey tell, could be wrong with a team that’s won 147 games in the last three years? 
The calls for change have reached mind-numbing levels in Vancouver, where the Canucks are still licking their wounds after an embarrassing first-round loss to Los Angeles.  Reporter Jim Morris sums it up this way:

Los Angeles exposed Vancouver’s soft side. The Kings showed more speed and aggression…

Expect coach Alain Vigneault to be fired. It’s unlikely Raymond will be back. Defenceman Sami Salo may have played his last game as a Canuck. The biggest change will be in net.

That’s the kind of turnover you’d expect from a bottom-feeder, not a team that’s captured back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies.  But it’s the typical media overreaction that accompanies a premature playoff exit.  It’s simply not fashionable to sit back, assess the situation, and determine that the Canucks - a perennial Stanley Cup contender - might just bring home the bacon next season with nothing more than a little bit of luck.

Vancouver Sun columnist Iain MacIntyre is well aware of the role chance plays in determining the outcome of a playoff series:

People don’t want to hear it — and some players don’t want to believe it — but the competition is now so even that there is frequently a randomness to winning and losing, that the competition is determined by a key injury, a great bounce, a terrible call or a hot goalie.

The randomness MacIntyre refers to has always existed.  It’s impossible to predict and fruitless to analyze.  Unfortunately, hockey pundits make a living by trying to explain the inexplicable, often in an effort to provoke an impassioned response from an ornery fan base.  In so doing, these writers greatly reduce the legitimacy of their craft. 

Making a case to blow up a premier team that’s clearly built to compete for a championship on a regular basis is preposterous, to say the least, and it does a gross injustice to the difficulty modern-day general managers face in building annual contenders in the salary cap age.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction that sensible GM’s and grounded fans should ignore.

The loser’s lament is tiresome and predictable.  The bottom line is only one team wins its final playoff game each season.  29 others are left with a bevy of questions about what could have been and what needs to be done to improve prior to training camp in September.  For the top dogs, radical change is not required, and may very well produce negative results. 

As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal.  It is the courage to continue that counts.”

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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.