Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Wingnut’s Meditation on the Playoffs

A while back, Kirk wrote to me:

I'm actually interested in seeing what playoff hockey is all about. Who knows, it may even hook me on to the sport a little.

I felt the need to write a lengthy, self-serving posting that would encourage Kirk to not only care about hockey, but to embrace his destiny as a Wingnut. After all, friends don’t let friends become Bruins fans. It’s not quite as bad as being a fan of say, the Buffalo Bills. But it still hurts. You can’t want that for a friend.

Kirk, the playoffs are the most wonderful time of the year. It’s hard to explain how deeply hockey fans feel about the playoffs. As a sort of benchmark, Dinur phones me every year and wishes me Happy Playoffs, as if it were Christmas or Hanukkah. No joke. For the past couple of springs, I’ve had really good theory sections and the Wings have fought all the way to the Stanley Cup series. The spring has been pretty magical and it comes not a moment too soon. Winter quarter always sucks moderately, because football is over by mid-January. The hockey regular season is still going, but I’ve not been able to adjust my lame attention span to following much regular season hockey (although I find programming everything into Outlook really helps me track a lot better—I’ve had fun following the Yanks so far this baseball season).

I followed hockey closely in February and March of this year, though. The Wings, for the first time in about twenty years, looked like they might not make the playoffs. Being a Wingnut, you just get so fuckin’ spoiled. It was hard to think we wouldn’t be a playoff contender.

Reflections on this Year

But sure enough, the Wings pulled through. It’s just so awesome to have your team have so much damned character. And it’s so damned hard to accept that the last of my generation of Red Wings (the guys who are our age I mean) are pretty much gone. Ozzie’s a back-up now. Malts may be gone next year. These guys are core players who, while not the greatest players in Red Wings history, are some of the best teammates in any sport’s history and who have a great relationship with the fans. These guys are hard-core professionals who know that they’re insanely lucky to get to be NHL hockey players and approach the game with gratitude. They’ve developed their careers around core athletic and sportsmanship values that are so pure that they make me want to cry.

Any will anyone ever forget Nick Lidstrom, patron saint of hockey defensemen everywhere? And this veritable hockey god was actually in the shadow, if you can imagine such a thing, of Steve Yzerman for a time. Try imagining Lidstrom in anyone’s shadow. That’s how amazing the team has been. This has been a legendary and rich time in Red Wings history.

Yeah, I was a little sore after being eliminated by the Sharks this year. But in all frankness, as long as we weren’t swept, I was okay with it. Thank God for that drubbing we gave them in Game 4. Yeah, we lost the series. But let’s face it: dynastic conditions are very difficult in the present NHL. We’ve been insanely good for several years. There is much speculation by persons like Dinur and Todd Tavares at school (a Bruins fan, God help him—Ai! The pain!) that this Golden Age is coming to a close. Yet we keep managing to find highly viable combinations of veteran experience and youthful talent. Management has been superlative—we keep winning while rebuilding. It’s really something to behold. Show me another team that has been managed so well.

I only wish my dissertation were half as impressive.

Right and Proper Playoff Philosophy

Moreover, it’s important to note that we’ve also been one of the few philosophically pure hockey teams in the league, really until this year. I have to admit that while we’ve been genuinely good, several other teams in the NHL have suffered from bad coaching philosophies that have made them vulnerable in the playoffs. In Kirk’s last letter, he said to me:

Football, basketball, baseball and soccer don't really change, they are just more intense, but apparently the "experts" agree with you that teams that are built to win in the regular season aren't necessarily the best teams in the postseason. I think the only other possible comparison to this is in baseball, where a great offense can get get you a great record in the regular season but in the postseason all you need is 3 great starting pitchers and you have a chance to shut down all your opponents. So, teams with mediocre offenses but great starting pitchers may manage to have a winning record and perhaps even win 90 games or so, but then go on to knock off more flashy 100-win teams in the playoffs if their pitchers manage to dominate.

Hockey is like your account of baseball, except exactly the opposite. In the hockey playoffs, the true edge belongs to offensive powerhouses. This is why the Wings have been dominant in the offseason for several years. Several teams in the league were wrongly fixated on immoral and improper strategy for victory that is primarily “defense first.” This strategy is an abomination and the gods do not favor it. While many teams favored this strategy, I prefer to foist most of the blame on Ron Wilson. He probably didn’t invent it. But after Nagano, he deserves the blame for anything that’s wrong in North American hockey. The Ron Wilsons of the world have simply tried to rely on their regular-season, defense-first strategies going into the playoffs. These teams would develop very tight defenses. Then, they’d get a goal or two lead and then actually sit on it for the remainder of the game.

That sort of strategy can work in the regular season. Actually, it often works well. The hockey regular season is long, somewhat like the baseball season. Moreover, there are thirty teams in the league and you meet most of the teams from the opposite conference only once per season. The regular season is not a very scouting intensive experience. You aren’t going to play tonight’s team all that often, so it’s not like any one team has a great set of incentives to really learn the other team’s weaknesses. Games are not usually played as series, in baseball’s style. You just develop a method that’s well-suited to your team and keep plugging away at it. Under those constraints, a strong defense is a very good insurance policy in the regular season of making the playoffs.

Of course, any fan of the San Jose Sharks can tell you that making the playoffs is different from winning in the playoffs. The psychological dynamic is quite different in the playoffs, where you face a best of seven series. Suddenly, your ability to really learn your opponent’s weaknesses is critical to victory. In this setting, it is my opinion that the key to victory is a highly intelligent and high-powered offense that has the psychological aplomb and patience to learn how to dismantle the opponent’s defense. Naturally, defenses also learn in this process. However, hockey defenses are extremely vulnerable, owing to the critical importance of a single man—the goalie. Once a goalie is cracked, i.e. faces a definitive and crushing failure, it very rare for a team to come back in the playoffs. That said, it is never impossible. One need only recall last year’s Stanley Cup series for evidence of this fact.

Digression on Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Championship

That said, such a performance is exceptional. I think the textbook case of defense not winning the playoffs is Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Championship, between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche. This game was the definitive turning point in a series that ended the intense and bitter rivalry that emerged between the two teams over the course of the ‘90s, banishing the Avalanche to obscurity over the following years. While the former Quebec Nordiques did win their Stanley Cup the year before, I feel this series put the cap on any Avalanche attempt to define themselves as one of the storied franchises of the National Hockey League. I feel this is true for some time to come.

Some context: Both teams had been quite impressive during the regular season, with the Wings entering the playoffs as the first seed, having won the President’s Trophy. The playoff bracket is reproduced below, courtesy of my friends and yours at Wikipedia:

Note that the first seed in the Eastern Conference was the Boston Bruins, who were eliminated in six games by the eighth seed Habs. This is typical Bruins fare. Look, Kirk, it’s your choice. I’m just sayin’.

But to return to the original digression, the Avs were the second seed in the conference, tied with the San Jose Sharks for second highest points in the league. This conference championship, then, was a showdown. If the Avs were to ever show that they were better than us, this was their moment.

In all fairness, they didn’t suck. It was a seven game series that was played neck and neck. The Red Wings won the first game at the Joe, 5-3. Colorado came back for Game 2 and won in overtime, 4-3. In Denver, the Wings pulled ahead again 2-1, also in overtime. Once more, the Avs tied the series, winning Game 4 in Denver, 3-2. Then, in Game 5, the Avs pulled ahead in the series, winning against the Red Wings 2-1 in overtime.

The turning point was the “Statue of Liberty Goal” scored by Brendan Shanahan in the first period. As you can see below, Roy thought he had the puck securely in his glove. But the ref hadn’t whistled it dead and it had fallen out as he was hoisting it. Shanny scooped it in. The shame shattered Roy’s psyche. In Game 7, he basically left the light on and the key under the mat for the Wings. The Avs were shut out, 7-0. I like to think of this as the definitive moment of Patrick Roy’s career. I imagine there are many who disagree with me and I really could care less. This is how I will remember him for all time to come.

During the playoffs, when the goalie is finally broken, you have them. True, series are won without this spectacle. But there is nothing quite as satisfying as watching your team destroy your opponent’s goalie. The core point is, the playoffs are about your offense’s strategic ability to learn how to crack the opponent’s defense and your defense’s psychological ability to recover from failure. At the end of a series, you know who the better team was. This is the glory of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Return to Discussion of Proper Playoff Philosophy

In the past few years, one of the elements that, in my opinion, contributed to the Wings’ hegemony was the overwhelming number of teams that employed this Ron Wilsonesque defensive philosophy—get a lead and then sit on it. Let your strong defense and super-cultivated goalie do the rest.

One can see the temptation. There are some very refined goalies in this sport. Among the most refined was a man named Dominik Hasek, otherwise known as “Mr. Slinky for a Spine.”

But even the refined goaltending of Dominik Hasek doesn’t win Stanley Cups. Briggs Moon probably remembers a team that used to hail from Minnesota, the North Stars, actually defeating the Great Slinky for a Spine in Game 6 of the 1999 Cup finals. It was in third overtime and I had already gone to bed, to be sure (I had to work in the morning), but the Stars eventually won the Cup that night. This sad story (well, not for Briggs) has three core morals.

First, Slinky for a Spine would only win the Cup when he got to (you know it) Detroit, where we don’t play “sit on the lead” hockey. So forget that “defense first” crap. It doesn’t win the Stanley Cup.

Second, there are some things that money can’t buy, but Dominik Hasek isn’t one of them. And the identity of the team that could afford to buy him (and Brett Hull, too)? The Detroit Red Wings. Remember this, when picking your allegiances.

This last moral needs a preamble. I was living in DC during the ’99 playoffs and actually ran into this guy from Buffalo on the metro. He saw my shirt, and said, “Now that the Wings are out, you’re rooting for Buffalo, right? You have to root for Buffalo.” You could see the pleading desperation in his eyes. “They have to win. They have to.” You could see what losing the Lombardi Trophy three times had done to the poor man. For pure pity’s sake, I told him I would root for the Sabres. So fucking sad. So yeah, there are worse teams than the Bruins, Kirk. But still, friends don’t let friends become Bruins fans. It’s just too bitter. When I called Briggs the next day to congratulate him, all I could think of was the poor bastard from Buffalo on the metro. So fucking sad.

So third, don’t let that happen to you.

Well, to get back to the subject. Over the past few years, people have realized the defensive approach doesn’t work—thank God! It was disgusting while it lasted. In general, the league is abandoning the defensive trend and learning to play proper playoffs hockey again. Take, for example, the team that beat us this year, the Sharks, have done everything possible to become us. They fired Ron Wilson and hired Red Wings Assistant Coach Todd McLellan. And they do look a lot like us now. It’s kind of scary when guys in teal (teal!) try stealing your identity. I have to admit that they did well at managing the transition from regular season hockey to playoff hockey this year. Pretending to be the Wings seems to work for them.

Prophecy: If the Sharks don’t win the Cup this year, they will forever be a choke team. I mean, they bought one of our coaches and tried to become us, doing a not-half-bad job. What else could they need? An octopus on the ice? Motown hits over the loudpeakers? A trumpet rendition of Hava Nagila during third period? There can be no excuses. If they don’t win this year, they’ll be one of those teams. One of those teams like the post-’71 Bruins. Plus, those fuckers will still be wearing teal.

So, hopefully, for Dinur's sake and the sake of all my in-laws, Thornton will remember this little bit he did last year:

Bottom line for the Wings after this playoff season: As the NHL abandons its dalliance with a defensive approach to the playoffs, the Wings need to come up with some new innovation for these guys to later copy after we beat them. The good news? We probably will.


Kirk said...

Just thought you'd like to know the Bills didn't lose 3 Super Bowls, the lost 4. Not simply 4, either, but 4 in a row. In a row!!! They are the ultimate frustrating team probably in all of sports. To be good enough to make it to 4 championship games in a row is simply amazing but instead of being able to celebrate the memories of all those wins, including the largest come-from-behind victory in NFL playoff history led by the backup QB no less, Bills fans memories are filled with only pure misery at losing the big game every single time. Each Super Buwl got progressively worse too, losing the first one in a thriller against the Giants, then at least staying competitive with the Skins and Cowboys, then completely laying down in the Cowboy rematch. They were so bad in the last one their starting QB, Jim Kelly, was actually benched mid-game. Benched!!

Poor Steve Tasker, the hall-of-fame special teams player who is the reason they have a dedicated special teams spot in the Pro Bowl, left the Bills after the 4th Super Bowl to join the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers went on to lose the Super Bowl that season to the Niners in the Steve Young take-the-monkey-off-my-back game. Thus, Tasker lost 5 straight Super Bowls, the only player I know of in any sport with such a dubious distinction. Now THAT is futility!!

Kirk said...

Great read, by the way, very well said. Now that I have no interest in any of the remaining teams I'm not paying attention to hockey at all. Maybe next year I will try harder to watch more games, mostly B's since they all their games are on local TV but I will try to include Red Wings games when possible.

Cuphound said...

[SIGH]All this and he still dallies with the Bruins.[/SIGH]

foundinidaho said...

My Lord, dude! I just went through heartbreak with my Idaho Steelheads (EHCL hockey) losing the Kelley Cup. They've won every time they made it to the finals before (twice). Not this year. And they lost to Cincinnati. UGH! It's like the Packers losing to the Bengals.

Cuphound said...

My parents, for reasons passing understanding, moved to Ohio about twelve years ago. A decade ago, I was stranded at home with the folks for a year and the Cyclones were all the hockey I managed to see for a year. The Cyclones are one of the few things I developed a lukewarm feeling toward while in that God-forsaken cesspool. But my friend Foundinidaho doesn't like 'em, so fuck 'em, I say. Cincinnati sucks.

We have a WHL team here in Seattle, the Thunderbirds. I haven't gone in a few years, really since Dinur left. We'd buy cheap as hell seats in the rafters, far away from all the kids, and I'd get drunk on good Irish whiskey in a hidden flask and hoot and holler and cuss out the ref. Naturally, I wore a radio headset so that I could hear the play-by-play. Yes, I am a geek.

One night, one of the ushers came up to us. We thought he'd want us to be less rowdy. He shook our hands and told us how cool it was for the team to have some real fans.

Neil wanted to go. Next season, damn it, I'll take him to go see the T-Birds play. It's not the NHL, but damn it, it is cheap and live.

StLee said...

Only watch hockey once a year, during the playoffs, usually until the Canucks are eliminated, and then I'll root for the remaining Canadian team. I tend to enjoy it and say I'm gonna watch more hockey next year. Then next year comes and I never do -until the playoffs start.

foundinidaho said...

Yes, from an EHCL perspective, the Idaho Steelheads are great. Any others are dubious at best! When I lived in Utah, we went to see their team play OUR team. My then 7 year old and I were hollering for our Steelheads and getting beer spilled on us on purpose. And we WON. Hahahahaha. :)