Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Convergence

Trying really, really hard to like the playoffs

Here’s an analogy: The playoffs are to the regular season as a shootout is to a regulation game. I don’t just say that to irritate old-school fans (well, maybe a little bit), but because there’s some validity to the comparison. The two events both exist because people want to see someone win. It is perfectly conceivable that the regular season could simply be it, all that there is of hockey in the NHL, the ‘winner’ being simply whoever ends with the best record. Maybe some seasons two or more teams would end with the same record, in which case, there’d be a tie. That would be fair. But it would also be totally unsatisfying- maybe once upon a time hockey fans could deal with a tie game every now and then, in the interests of fairness, but at the end of the season, you want to see someone win, and not just win in an abstract, statistical way, but actually win everything in a single game.

Like a shootout, the playoffs are a very different challenge than the preceding events. Success in the regular season is usually based on either structure or phenomenal natural talent, but neither is a guarantor of playoff achievement. Hockey, apparently, becomes a very different game in the postseason. Not necessarily a better game, because the increased importance of every match seems to be generally counterbalanced by increased conservatism in play-style- I mean, let’s not let it get too exciting. Some things that are trivial on the scale of the normal season can have massive significance in the playoffs. A normally marginal 4th liner goes on a quirky scoring run in November, it’s a curiosity, but in the playoffs it suddenly becomes absolutely the most amazing thing in the entire universe, freakin’ manna from heaven. A center with a weakfish faceoff percentage is just ‘something to work on’ for most of the year, in the playoffs, it’s a catastrophe, worthy of benching and possibly decapitation. Conversely, things that are terrifically useful in normal hockey suddenly become less useful in playoff hockey- a high-scoring but streaky forward is a great investment over 82 games, less so when there are only 4.

Even in a fairly predictable playoff season, such as this one, wherein everyone who is Supposed To Win does, the differences from regular season play are readily apparent. The rules are the same (mostly), but the things that decide a game are different. Compared to the regular season, playoff games are won and lost on teeny, tiny things. Every now and then there’s a real disastrous blowout where you can point to a solid, obvious hockey-reason for the outcome- say, terrible goaltending or bad defensive coverage. But this time of year, everybody is playing tighter, more careful, more aware than usual, and most games really could go either way. Too often it’s one very small moment that makes the difference- one lucky bounce, one bad turnover, one half-second of distraction. It can be painfully boring and tremendously exciting at the same time, since there are huge stretches of time watching two teams waltz in the neutral zone, trying to out-trap each other, but then suddenly there’s one dazzling, freakish play that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen and turns out to win the game. Not being a particular partisan of any of the teams playing, there’ve been a lot of games I wanted to turn off, thinking to myself, wow, this is some slow hockey (thankfully, less so now in the Conference Finals), but it’s unexpectedly hard to change the channel, because if something cool happens, it will be both really cool and really important.

The playoffs are a sentimental time of year, not just because of the Annual Analyst Hyperbole Competition (‘BEST SERIES EVER!’), but because- in the face of all the pressure, all the weight of good or bad luck, all the impossibility of knowing the outcome- feelings become more important. Most of the year, most fans couldn’t care less what their team or anybody on it is feeling, unless they’re throwing some sort of public hissy fit. But come playoff time? Oh, man, everyone in the hockey world temporarily takes off the amateur GM hats and puts on their amateur sports psychologist hats. We’re tremendously interested in emotional states- anger, stress, fear, hate, desire, determination. Playoff coverage is one step removed from Oprah, with a macho veneer, because winning in the playoffs isn’t so much about what assets you have as a team in terms of talent, but about how players psychologically react to really high-stakes hockey. ‘Choking’ is just a code-word for a mental breakdown, a team that plays too laconically, carelessly, angrily, or whatever to win, even though they have everything they need. No one ‘chokes’ in the regular season, because in the regular season you can be the most psychologically fucked team in the universe and still do pretty well. But without a solid balance of passion and restraint, anger and joy, optimism and pragmatism, your boys are definitely watching the Final from the comfort of their La-Z-Boys.


People will tell you that the playoffs are the time of winning, the part of the season that makes winners. Bullshit. This, jaananam, is the season of losing, and losing big. This is the time when nearly everybody really, truly loses. In the cruel days of April more hockey fans see their hopes and dreams unceremoniously squished than at any other time of the year, and May isn’t far behind.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from observing the playoffs from this perspective, it’s that every team seems different while they’re still playing, but after they’ve lost the big loss, they all become very similar. Every fan community reacts the same way, and I am comforted to know that Habistanis have by no means conquered the market on treating their team with brutal, crazed insanity in the face of an unsuccessful season. When a team has just been eliminated, there are no good fans, there is no charity, no patience, no ‘aww, that’s too bad, maybe things will be better next season.’ No, in the immediate aftermath of real losing, every fan base from New York to L.A., Edmonton to Tampa, reacts the same way, and it ain't pretty. It doesn’t matter how well your team did in the regular season, it doesn’t matter how many good things they showed, doesn’t even really matter how deep they went in the playoffs: everyone is instantly convinced that they’re franchise is irredeemably, disastrously broken. Everyone wants to fire the coach and/or GM, everybody wants to trade or demote the captain, everyone (short of maybe Pittsburgh) is looking at their best player and wondering what better things they might be able to get for him on the trade market, or conversely, looking lustfully at some other team’s best player and wondering what they’d have to give up to acquire him. Mostly, though, everyone is just aching and angry, scrambling for the perfect solution or, failing that, a comforting cliché.

The tragic thing about this part of the year is that the losing is built into it. Twenty-nine teams and all their acolytes have to lose, no matter what, and that means that a lot of those fans are freaking out over absolutely nothing. Remember the shootout analogy? If your team never sees a shootout because they’re always losing in regulation, you got problems. If your team can’t seem to get a single goal ever in a shootout, you got problems. And if your team is good enough to get to shootouts and score, but still never actually walks away with that extra point, then maybe you got problems too. But losing one shootout? Hell, losing 3 shootouts? It means nothing. Of the 29 teams that will be going home sad this year, several of them were perfectly capable of winning with exactly the team they had. Different games, different bounces, different injuries, all-around better mojo, and they could have won it. Going back to the drawing board and redesigning the entire team to try to cover for the reasons you lost to the 2006-2007 Ducks, for example, won’t get you a freakin’ thing next year, because you never gonna play the 2006-2007 Ducks again, and next year you could just as easily get your ass beat for totally different reasons by the 2007-2008 Sharks. The final series could be between the Red Wings and a team of perfect Red Wings-clones, one of them would still lose, for a thousand tiny reasons that are well beyond anyone’s knowledge or foresight. That’s what makes it terrible, that’s what makes it wonderful: there ain’t no planning, designing, structuring for sure-fire playoff success- do what you must to get there, and see what happens.


So cheer up, all y’all distraught losers, wipe away your tears, hug your goalie (in spirit- no stalking) (or your backup goalie, if your goalie is the reason you lost) (or failing that, your best defenseman). In spite of all the pain, the playoffs are a beautiful thing, and maybe really are the best time of the hockey season, because the playoffs are a perfect convergence. The playoffs bring us all together. Through most of the year, there’s just more hockey out there than anyone can fully follow. The games are mutually exclusive; no one can watch all of them. Even professional analysts specialize, covering certain teams and certain spots more thoroughly than others. The landscape is lush but unnavigably vast, there’s so much going on that it’s impossible to understand it all, even to know everything. Most of the year hockey in places like Anaheim and Vancouver seems impossibly far away from me. Bits and pieces of it pop up, blips on my radar, I read things on the web and catch the occasional game, but really, it might as well be in Switzerland for all the relevance it seems to have to my hockey, my team, my division.

But over the course of the playoffs, as teams are eliminated and there’s less and less to watch, hockey becomes not impoverished but somehow deeper, all the richer for it’s increasing narrowness. In the beginning all we fans were all watching different things, but now our gazes are all drawn inexorably to the same points, the same places. Teams I have known all season- Ottawa and Buffalo being near relations of my own Habs- seem newer and more freshly complex than when they were just ‘our opponents’, suddenly the Ducks are a much more fascinating entity than the pale echoes of Pronger and Niedermayer that occasionally made the news here back in December, February. For the first time all year, I understand pretty much everything I hear/read about hockey. Where once there were thirty stories playing out simultaneously, now there are only four, soon there will be only two, and then ultimately just one, one story for this entire season, one team who (love ‘em or hate ‘em) will be the team for this season. When those final games come, no matter where our regular-season loyalties lie, every hockey fan on this continent will be in the same moment, one big conversation for a thousand different opinions.

And even with the ache of losing still fresh on so many of us, it’s a sweet event, this convergence. It’s the time of year when you get to be just a hockey fan, if you want to be, whatever your natural allegiances. The sport is so much more than all its many pieces, and whoever ends up cuddling with the Big Shiny at that very last moment of the season, even if it’s someone you never liked or even particularly followed, you will be watching. And be you Habistani or Kingsian, be you thrilled or irate or depressed about the outcome, you will care. Maybe not the way you care for your own team, but the way you care for the game and all the things that go into it.

The season will eventually fully end and we’ll all be enveloped in our own concerns again, various local problems of greater or lesser urgency. But we’ll also all remember the One Story and the One Moment that defined this past season, the way all hockey fans remember the final moments of every season they’ve ever followed, even the unfulfilling ones. We all dissipate, and then same time next year, we’ll all converge again, we’ll all be pulled into one moment by the very nature of the playoffs. It’s the life-cycle of the hockey world. It’s a beautiful thing.


Jordi said...

I think Pronger getting suspendered is the only thing that really got me slightly interested. I have lost all faith in playoffs and all the magic that usually comes with it.

I've become more interested in the stupid trade rumours and minor prospects now - it's my Habs substitute while "OMG THE SENS ARE AWESOME" are boring the hell out of me.

I am going t pray to god and sacrifice all forms of animals to hope that 2007-2008 doesn't become "Meet Trap Hockey's new best friend - improved Trap Hockey".

E said...

the problem with the trap is that nobody's really figured out how to beat it. apparently with the new rules it's not as successful of a strategy as it once was, but in some situations, against some teams, it's still pretty damn effective. i defy anyone to beat the sabres 4 games in 7 without routine trapping.

of course, no one wants to admit that their team uses the trap. accusing someone else's team of trapping is like accusing them of raping puppies or something- people get very, very upset. but everyone uses it sometimes, because it works, and in the playoffs, everyone is going to do whatever works because winning is more important than entertaining. fact is, if it was my (our) poor outgunned habs out there and they managed somehow to get a solid lead on buffalo, i'd want them to trap the freakin' hell out of those guys, because you know our D don't block enough shots or clear the zone quickly enough to hold them off for long if they get into our end. and screw whether or not some irate, eliminated flyers fan is sitting somewhere getting bored- i'm not going to suggest in a million years that my boys should lose rather than trap a few games, and no sens fan is going to say that now. they might deny it or make up different names for it, but in the end, this month, i don't think anyone cares if they're ruining the sport so long as they're not dead yet. it's sad, but i don't really see any way around it, unless you're the sharks and can make dump-and-chase look sexy.

also, is it just me, or is there a serious dearth of stupid trade rumors these days? believe me, i've been looking for them too, but all i come up with are the same jackasses with their 'murray for lecavalier!' plans. i long for something more creative.

Earl Sleek said...

Great piece, e. Playoffs are a crazy season, and yeah, way too often wins means "heart" and losses mean "choke", and people willingly neglect the fact that it was a teeter-totter game that could have gone either way.

I'm really trying to adopt a bit of evenness to it all, trying to take satisfaction in the facts that the Ducks made the playoffs and were in a position for success, and not trying to take too much out of the fact that series got won or lost. I dunno if that is making me a better fan or a deader fan, but I don't know that I want to get too encouraged or discouraged by the flip of a proverbial coin.

Anyway, a really solid read.

Jordi said...

"Lecavalier will come to Montreal! Or Ottawa! Or Vancouver! Or San Jose! Who else needs him? You think he'll take Todd Bertruzzi?"

Julian said...

Yeah, the playoffs really are a crapshoot in the end, the best you can hope for is that your team is good enough to survive the bad bounces and take advantage of the good ones.

There's a little story i've read...

“After watching Al Arbour lead the New York Islanders to four consecutive championships in the early 1980s, Darcy Regier asked the legendary head coach if he had the secret to winning the Stanley Cup. He did. But what Arbour told the GM-in-training about 20 years ago was not what Regier had expected. “I thought I was going to get some kind of answer like, ‘You need two scoring lines, you need a checking line, you need three offensive defencemen, three defensive defencemen and a good goalie,’ ” the Buffalo Sabres general manager, who played a handful of game for Arbour with the Islanders from 1982-84, said yesterday. “But he said, ‘You need a lot of luck. A lot of good luck.’”

I remember right after Edmonton lost G7 last year, almost immediately people were posting about changes in the offseason, who to fire, who to resign, etc etc. It all seemed so abrupt to me, like we'd just made it as far as you possibly could without getting there, certainly we could at least savour it or have a good cry or something for a little bit before looking ahead, no?

I guess the point really is the journey rather than the destination.

Teebz said...

I firmly disagree about the playoffs being compared to the shootout. The playoffs are the microscope for teams who have made the playoffs. If a team is lacking in some area of the game, other teams will expose and exploit those weaknesses. It is not a different challenge at all, but, rather, a completely new game.

The trap, which hasn't been fully-employed since 2004, was designed to shut down the neutral zone and create turnovers. However, since most teams don't want to turn the puck over, it is due less to the trap, and more to the fear of costing your team a goal.

As for "teeny, ting things" determining the outcome, the teams are under a microscope. Instaed of working out the issues in 82 games, you have 7. The problems become that much more apparent (see: Buffalo), and the adaptations teams make become much more visible when something goes wrong (see: Detroit's injuries).

The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all of sports when you combine the physical nature of the sport over regular 82 games in the span of seven months, and then another two months of live-or-die hockey. The shootout is for the fans to see a winner. The playoffs are to determine which team is the best at adapting and succeeding.

I'd take watching playoff hockey over a shootout any day of the week, and twice on Sundays. Why? Because it's the playoffs... where life-and-death is amplified by the quest of the Silver Chalice.

I do want to add that this was a great article. Very good writing, and excellent points made. Thanks for this piece. Truly a superb piece in the hockey blog world.

E said...

jordi- lecavalier should just become the superman of the hockey world- no contract with anyone, just shows up out of the blue every now and then to help out a team in distress, and then on to the next one.

earl- i can't imagine what you're going through right now. literally, i got no idea what it's like. but i don't think trying to stay even makes you deader, because i don't think it'll make you any less happy if the ducks do pull it off, and it might make it a bit easier if they don't. but like i said, i don't know.

julian- i'm not sure if the 'journey not the destination' thing really makes sense in hockey. i mean, it's a competative sport, so the destination is pretty freakin' important. i think the problem is that the playoffs are played under the illusion that it's a meritocracy (i.e. the team that wins, wins because they were 'better' than everyone else), but really, the deciding factors between the teams who go the furthest are often things that can't be controlled. the cup winner isn't necessarily the best-structured team with the best players, but a very good team that got lucky at the right points. the hard thing about it is that a lot of the losses aren't necessarily fair, which is difficult for everyone to accept.

teebz- if i understand your main point correctly, you're saying that the critical difference between the playoffs and shootouts is that the playoffs, although different from the regular season, measure things that are important to defining a good team, whereas a shootout measures a useless or irrelevant skill. that's a great point, and i take it gladly.

however, while i agree that adaptation and endurance do help create playoff success, those are things like 'heart', which (as earl said) are too often used to rationalize whoever wins ex post facto. they're non-falsifiable statements, and as such, i'm a little suspicious of their explanatory power. a lot of the teeny, tiny things that have changed games this season haven't been exposed structural weaknesses of the victim-team, but individual, random human (or even non-human) errors. think luongo on that big losing goal- it wasn't some technical fault of louie's that the ducks cleverly capitalized on, it was just him getting distracted at the wrong moment.

overall point being, i think you're right about the playoffs showing important qualities in teams that the regular season doesn't, i just think you're overestimating it a little.

[oh yeah, and as to the trap, i'm not sure what you mean about it not being 'fully-employed', but i do think it's very much alive as a strategy, one that every team uses now and again, although some more often and more effectively than others.]

Julian said...

I meant the journey being the important thing for fans, i mean, when 29 out of 30 teams fail, that's all you really have to look forward to most of the time. It's best to try and enjoy a playoff run (oh, i know, it's far too nervewracking to properly enjoy) than worry about what's coming up next.

I was mostly remarking on the tendancy of alot of fans to keep looking to the future, keep looking ahead to what will help them finally win, all the while ignoring the ride they're actually on or the ride they just got off. That ride is what we as fans live for, isn't it? Even if it's so hard to enjoy when it so often ends so badly.

I'd be quite willing to bet, that within six hours of the winning team lifting the Cup, someone on their HF board will post a "What do we do about next year" type topic. I can understand non-playoff team fans doing it, but if you've just been knocked out of, say, the conference finals, what's the rush? It's still five weeks till draft day, six till UFA season. Chill, reflect, and when the time draws near, start counting cap space and expendable assets.

Anyway, as you may have guessed, this was all my reaction to the Oilers loss last season.

iggysfan said...

lol, now that was a fantastic blog, loved every minute of it, every line/paragraph held all the reasons that make hockey a beautiful thing.

everything in life has it's ups and downs, sometimes things are boring, but in hockey...even the most boring game has it's moments of excitment.

No team can make a cinderella playoff run every season, and no fan can rightfully expect that of their team. one likes losing, and in the moments/days following a loss..yea, someone's got to be to blame, at least for a while lol,

Anyway..great post!! :)