Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Lucky Underdog

As humans, we like to attach narrative to everything, especially sports. Sometimes, those narratives don't exist.

Teams like the 2010-2011 New York Rangers, the 2010-2011 Anaheim Ducks, the 2009-2010 Colorado Avalanche, and even the 2009-2010 Washington Capitals, we like to say are or were pretty good, despite getting dominated territorially (or, at least, significantly underperforming their goal differential with respect to Corsi). When you get lucky defensively over and over, that gives this feeling of invincibility.

I felt it watching Game 1 last night. Even though I firmly believe Semyon Varlamov is better than Michal Neuvirth, I feel like had Varlamov played, the Capitals would have inevitably lost, thanks to some crazy carom. Varlamov has had plenty of bad luck all season, especially with regards to the goal support he gets (compared to Neuvirth).

From a Rangers fan perspective, I might feel like my team played pretty well, despite getting out-Fenwick'd and outchanced by a significant margin and stifled on the whole. My team weathered the initial Capitals storm during the first period, and afterwards settled in. They weathered the storm, just like with any other game. If your team is pretty good, though, they shouldn't have to weather storms so frequently. Right? Unfortunately, this reasoning doesn't fit the narrative of the hard-working disciplined team overcoming adversity to win. And if the hard-working team didn't lose, well, they'll get 'em next time. Supposedly.

If your team is pretty good (2007-2009 Washington Capitals), then putting the other team through such "storms" is the norm, not the exception. So when the passing clinic breaks down for a while, the team looks terrible. Selective memory, unfortunately, remembers the breakdowns, not the constant successful aggressive play the majority of the time, to fit the narrative of the unclutch, undisciplined, "soft" skill team.

Obviously, people with a better eye for the game (or people who watch with a "chances-eye") will be better prepared to see past the ebbs and flows of the game and recognize what truly happened. But that doesn't describe most people.

So as the playoffs keep going, make sure you're watching hockey with a "chances-eye." Recognize that the team that got the better of the play was almost certainly the better team. The Capitals were the better team in Game 1, no doubt about it. But the Rangers gave the Capitals some trouble, especially when they went up after Gilroy's goal in the third. The Capitals need to work on their defensive zone rotation when the opponent works the puck below the goal lines--I saw three Caps chasing two forwards, meaning the weak-side pinching defenseman, like Gilroy, will be left open--but on the whole, the Caps were better.

To quote Japers' Rink: "Win one game. Do it sixteen fifteen times."

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