This is what I see:
This last game was very close. The game against Colorado was very close. The Canadiens played very well through the first half of the season-opener against the Leafs; they played extremely well for almost the whole game against Buffalo. The two Thursday games, against Calgary and Pittsburgh, I didn’t see all the way through, but by the accounts of eyes I trust, they were the worst two of the season so far. From what I can see, these Canadiens could easily have been 3-2-2 now- they look much more like a 3-2-2 team than a 1-4-2 team.
The difference between 3-2-2 and 1-4-2… it looks so big, but it is is composed of so few things, such small things- a stupid penalty here, a post there, a couple of improbable saves by an opposing goalie. Sometimes hockey is a game of moments; sometimes those moments go badly, and while there have been a few moments that I’m sure some of the Canadiens would like to have back, those moments don’t represent fundamental flaws so much as split-second errors. The lesson to be learned from a too-many-men call is not ‘fire the coach and the GM and the equipment manager’; it’s ‘don’t fuck up your changes’. Everybody on the Canadiens knows how to not fuck up a change; the Hockey Gods just gave them an object lesson in remembering it.
When I was just a little baby hockey fan, and didn’t know Jim Corsi from Tommy Dorsey, I would have felt very sad after all these losses, and so I would have gone out to some of the Habs blogs and message boards, and I would have found other sad and distressed people, and we all would have talked about all the things that we were sad and distressed about. And we would have reinforced each other’s disappointment, and wallowed in our collective self-pity. And then we would develop a fine sense of outrage and indignation at the Canadiens, who made us all feel so bad, which would then turn into a desire for various members of the team and/or management to be punished. And I would go to bed hating significant portions of my own team, and wishing that they not only be fired but fired out of a very large cannon into the moon. That kind of hate, that kind of wish, it’s not hockey analysis; it’s just vengeance born of disappointment.
But now, I know more, and among the things I know are these: power play success over the long term tends to be driven by shot volume, and the Canadiens have the sixth highest PP shooting rate in the League so far this season. Moreover, I know that aberrantly low shooting percentages tend to be unsustainable and eventually rise, and given that the Canadiens PP shooting percentage so far is… um… zero, whereas a typical shooting PP shooting percentage is more like 19%, the Habs power play is almost certainly going to improve dramatically. I know that the Canadiens have allowed the second-fewest PK shots in the NHL. I know that they’re even-strength SF/60 is the 5th highest, and their SA/60 the 5th lowest. I know that the Candiens dramatically outchanced Buffalo and Colorado, despite the losses, and didn’t do too badly against Calgary. I know that bad streaks have happened before, to my team and other teams beyond, and those teams have still made the postseason.
I could say these things without data. I could say, if you watch the games, you know that the Habs have dominated for whole periods, even pairs of periods in succession, and not gotten the sort of goals one would expect from such dominance. I could say that every cold streak eventually warms just as surely as every winter eventually gives way to spring. I could say that sometimes the bounces don’t go your way, and at those times the test of your character is not how hard you abuse yourself but how stoically you maintain your composure. I could say that sometimes a team doesn’t lose for a reason, it just loses. All these are things that hockey fans of long experience ought to know, they are truths we’ve seen demonstrated time and again. But if I just say those things, as lore, as wisdom, then the angry and disappointed will come back with their own lore, clichés about how ‘good teams make their own luck’, and the argument will come to a standstill, and I will wonder if maybe they are actually right in their self-righteousness, if perhaps there is something I haven’t seen. But if I say them with data, if I point to the facts, then I have evidence and they just have anger, and I can walk away. And I can go to bed loving my team properly, with a fan’s wholly appropriate faith that this too shall pass.
This is the great gift that advanced stats have to give ordinary fans and extraordinary players: the courage to walk away from the panic. The ability to look at variance and see it for what it is. And, irony of ironies, the strength to trust our eyes, to know that playing well can be playing well even when the scoreboard says different, and the knowledge that in the fullness of time, those who play well will rise, just as those who get lucky will fall.
The single greatest problem facing the Habs right now is not a lack of chemistry or trouble with coaching. It’s choking. A pile of losses, even unlucky losses, stimulates acute self-consciousness and anxiety, and self-consciousness is what makes even the best of players underperform. It drives the impulse to start changing something, anything, everything. Twenty hockey players, all believing they need to change something, all worrying about their skills, all feeling like they need to prove themselves RIGHT NOW OR ELSE is an absolute classic recipe for paradoxical performance effects. The best sports performance is the one that has complete trust in its own skills, and it’s gotta be really, really, really hard for any Hab tonight to feel too much trust in his skill set.
The fan/media orgy of despair has to stop. Everyone who is writing a hyperbolic, alarmist, irrational article/forum post/comment crucifying a third of the team needs to pause and consider that they’re engaging in the premeditated destruction of their own players. There are criticisms to be made of the Canadiens, and as the year goes on, there will be plenty of occasions to make them. But this problem, right now, in front of us, this whole 1-4-2 thing, this is not a structural flaw, it is some bad fucking luck, and if we-who-watch want them-who-play-for-us to get through it faster and come out of it stronger, this is the time for us to man (or woman) up, stop whining, come together and support our goddamn team. They can do better, and they will do better.
So long as we don’t cannibalize them first.
Saturday, October 22, 2011
This is what I see: