Saturday, September 27, 2008

Someone Save Them From Us

Winning the Stanley Cup will take a team at least 98 games, at most 110. We're talking about 100 hours of competitive hockey, 10,000 or so shifts, maybe 3,000 shots for and against.

To earn the right to lift it at the end of all that is even more difficult, a team must win at least 56 of those games, while probably getting to the end of regulation or ahead or even in 70 or more.

In other words, this Stanley Cup thing is not a sprint.

When I was younger, I used to be a runner and a swimmer. I specialised (in both sports) in longer events - all races that took about two to four odd minutes. When you race these kind of races, you quickly learn two things:

1. You cannot go all-out the whole race, sprinting runs out at a minute or sooner
2. Going in with a strategic plan is vitally important

I see the race to the Stanley Cup in those terms sometimes. First, you have the heats (regular season) and the finals (playoffs). Secondly, results show that every year the thing that matters most is finishing strong - and it doesn't matter who leads after the first, second or third laps. All that is forgotten when the tape is broken or the wall is reached.

In the NHL, it is common and, well strategically sound, for teams to cruise for much of the season, winning games with little effort and without much fuss. After all, for 6 months all that matters is that you secure a place in the playoffs. Nothing else. Beat half the teams in the league, and you're there. Last year, we harped on about this (with the 96 point goal) and I still stand by it - set a points goal, achieve it, then worry about the finals.

In other sports, competitors that exert themselves too much in the heats are at a disadvantage, and it is the competitors that can "cruise" into the final that hold the cards. There is something to be said for good lanes (just like good playoff match-ups), but the best still get a decent lane every time, even on half efforts. The parallel is true in the NHL, teams with some kind of strategic plan for the season in mind often progress well in the playoffs.

If it were up to the fans

Many a fan in Montreal will grasp this. Many will proclaim saving energy for the playoffs as gospel truth. The problem seems to be that once we all cross into the Bell Centre, no matter what tie of year, this philosophy and strategy we most often agree would be best to meet our ultimate goal, is completely tossed out the window. If it were up to some of us, 82 wins and 4 playoff series. When we get in that building - it's win, win, win; score, score, score; sprint, sprint, sprint for every minute of every shift in every game.

Well, no Cup recently, no conference finals in ages. It makes me think, is this one of the problems? Well have a look at these quotes and stories from last night:

Fancois Gagnon leads with "Like in the playoffs"

Mike Boone wrote 5 or 6 posts during the exhibition game, as did Gagnon for that matter.

Plekanec had this to say (English from French from English):
"Nowhere but Montreal could a game end like it did tonight in what is the exhibition season."

Lapierre echoed those sentiments:
"It was as loud as if we had won a playoff game in overtime"

A lot of coverage for a game that counts for nothing in two weeks time. I have to admit, I used to be immensely proud of the fact that Montreal fans could get so worked up for a game against Ottawa B, even after years of seeing teams beat others in the exhibition season and then getting clobbered 3 night later when the real line-ups meet.

But now, I tend to see everything through the guise of the road to the Cup. I guess I'm tired of waiting. In that respect, expectation, encouragement at that level, performance - all of it - it can't be sustained. Not when the teams you are trying to beat cruise through 5 months anonymously before first exerting some effort in April.

I'm not sure myself, and I'm certain someone like Dave Stubbs, Robert L, Dennis Kane, or other knowledgeable readers could confirm, that when the Canadiens were winning Cups, the exhibition games were not this crazy. I am thinking that every year as our desperation creeps ever further that we lose a bit of perspective and control over our emotions and mistake an exhibition win for a meaningful result.

When I was competing, I would often finish a race and tell someone who was very kindly and sincerely cheering their heart out for me on the first lap in the heats to save it for the last length or the finals please. In swimming especially, cheering can give a competitor an idea that they are either right ahead of or right behind someone and need to step up the pace, which is important because of all the blind spots. If the cheering is at its most intense right from the blocks, then any ramping up becomes impossible, any warnings to gear up, ineffectual.

I think the same must be true of a hockey team in a 100 game race. Shouldn't the cheering during Game 5 of the second knockout series be louder. It should if we want a reaction to our roars. I mean everyone talks about the mythical "seventh man", and how at the Bell Centre, it is a constant contributor. I think that if from exhibition game 4 to regular season game 51 to Stanley Cup playoffs game 14 the intensity never changes, there will be desensitization. The crowd becomes the jackhammer outside your front window day after day, it becomes your loud buzzing fridge - it is background noise that is no longer remarkable.

If the Canadiens were the Usain Bolts or the Michael Phelps of their sport, where no matter what they did, they would win, then the argument that cheering too enthusiastically right now would be meaningless. the fact is they are not. For the most part, the NHL could be a dead heat. There are at least 12 teams that could win the Cup if we look now. 12 different ones when we look in April. Come June, there are usually 2 that can't be separated from one another very easily. No, the Canadiens need to be wary of teams that come one or two positions behind them in the standings without trying in the last games of the season, whose players didn't spend all their energy in March. Last year could teach us that much.

As fans, we need to play our part. We need to hold the power to be remarkable. We need to have the ace up the sleeve that helps inject extra energy when it is most needed. To do that, I think we have to learn to hold it back, learn that this is two long sprints, with heats and finals. We need someone to save us from ourselves.

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