Friday, May 14, 2010

Somewhere In Between:

Habs Playoff Success

I am constantly amazed by the material I am able to find written about this edition of the Canadiens. Whether it be journalists who wrote off the team 6 times over the season and certainly after Game 4 in Washington pretending to have prophetic tendencies, fan-bloggers getting a little bit carried away with matters of the divine right and more than a little mixed up about historical events, or bitter rivals inventing frameworks that predict failure based on their limited viewing.

We (and by we I include you readers) have watched this team intently all season, seasons back. We have become familiar with what players are capable of, what is beyond their reach. We may not understand why the Habs ever win, or ever lose, but we are wise enough by now to know that we’ll probably never know.

It is why I take special offence with the extremities of the arguments both for and against this edition of the Habs. For the team, conveniently-postdated theories about Gainey’s prescience, Martin’s tactical genius and Montreal’s perfect mix are just as absurd as the curmudgeons who hang to the thread that luck has determined all and that luck is bounded by some beginning and some end.

I think we all try to find some sense here in our discussions, and I thank you all for that. Is it not then sensible to think that a combination of luck, skill, strategy and tenacity is what we just witnessed? That the combination found by the Canadiens was no more valid or invalid than the combination used by any of the three rivals set to battle for a place in the finals?

Smells of the Cup?

I used to be a big believer in destiny, in teams of destiny. Yes, I was once twelve.

Nowadays, every time I catch an RDS post-game with scenes of newly-minted fans screaming that the stars are aligned, I cringe. While I have come to accept that Montreal is a city full of manic depressive sports followers all gagging for the chance to wear a winner’s sweater, it is the misinterpretation of history that I frown upon more.

“Feels like 93” is perhaps the most hollow statement made by Habs fans these days. What does this mean? It is overused to the extreme, not only after playoff qualification, but in November, January and even August. To some, every year feels like 1993. It leads me to believe that few actually remember what 1993 was like at all. Why 93 anyway? Why not 65 or 73?

When the more thoughtful get involved, you’d think it would get better but it doesn’t. Many also dabble in the mythology of 1993. But not the real story, more the one that’s been rewritten to fit the current circumstance. Always the implication that 1993, 1986, these were somehow underserved Cups, that were it not for some celestial redirections goals would have been misses and misses against goals. I’ve written before on what a dis-service I think this is to the teams of those eras, chock full of all-stars and playoff successes both before and after these triumphs.

1993 felt a lot to different to me. After vanquishing the Nordiques, remember taking the Sabres very lightly, celebrating more for an Islanders win against Pittsburgh than any Habs win in Long Island and thinking the final could go any which way. This year feels nothing like that, except that I didn’t know we’d win the Cup until Game #5 of the Stanley Cup finals, and I don’t know anything of Cup winner now either.

Hockey is not a game of destiny. Though we talk of conspiracies, we’re aware of how impossible they would be to carry through. The playoffs are a tough slog. Winning 4 games against the same opponent in two weeks is hard work, particularly if they have talent. Hard work, commitment to playing as a team and flashes of skill all play a much more significant part than destiny.

The Luck Will Run Out

While the euphoric parade aluminum foil around the city, those who hate the Canadiens are having a parade of their own. A parade of cynicism.

As Sidney Crosby sat there in disbelief after Game 7, citing his theory that the Canadiens strategy was not a workable one (should the Pens then be virtual champs?), acolytes of the same sorts of theories did the same. While foil Cups and pretenses at prophecy make me cringe, the statisticians are making me chuckle.

Corsi-backers, whose material at the moment is so cockeyed I won’t even bother to link, are heading a column. No less than 10 posts have been made on certain sites the Montreal Canadiens, their luck and the prediction that it will al run out.

I know there’s been luck. I understand probabilities. But clearly I’ve been out of it for a while, because I must have missed the part where the stats grinders showed me the incontrovertible proof that they can show where luck begins and ends. I was still of the illusion that a coin flip has a 50% chance of being heads or tails, regardless of what the previous coin flip showed, what the previous hundred thousand showed. I didn’t know that Halak’s save percentage in one series dictated what it will be in the first period of game one of the next.

Most offensive here is the way those who follow their lovable stat with blinders call others deluded in the face of the data. Had they spilled an ounce of effort to employ real scientific curiosity as to the validity of Jacques Martin’s new (and most counterintuitive) model of hockey, then perhaps their dismissals would hold some weight. Instead they wait for the die to fall on seven without checking if they are weighted in any way.

It is the arrogance of the critics that puts me off. How they dismiss Halak as lucky. How they dismiss the Canadiens run as a dead end. How they bundle the Gionta goal at the end of Game 7 into the same shot category as the Orpik shot from the blueline. Just because one may not be able to come up with an adequate explanation for the way things are just yet does not mean that the only alternative is by default infallible. Maybe they should ask Lamarck about that, or any real scientist in the history of time, for that matter.

In between land

As I’ve said many times, I’d like to be able to put a finger on the reason for wins, to attribute points no one could dispute to our players and theirs for how things went. It’s complex, I can’t do that at the moment.

I know from watching that there’s been luck. Lots of luck. Luck that opponents haven’t found rebounds quickly enough, luck that the net isn’t an inch wider, luck that shots go in for the good guys.

I also know that there’s been skill too. Cammalleri scoring, for example. If anyone else had been in the position to have puck hit their knee, they’d probably not be noted as goalscorer on the play. Cammalleri has certain skills, and hand-eye coordination is near top the list.

And strategy. I know it’s highly counterintuitive that allowing shots will work. But the fact that it has should arouse curiosity rather than immediate blinders. Remember that in 1993 most would have laughed Swedish coaching of the trap right out of the room.

The answer is probably in between luck and skill. In between probability and strategy.

But I’ll tell you this as well. No part of the analysis, half-baked or not, tells us one iota of what might happen next week. Predicting the future is a carnival trick – make enough predictions and one will be right. The Habs have ample chance to win Game 1, the series and whatever else. While it would seem likely they’ll be deploying the tactics that work, there’s nothing to say the team won’t simply pack up that tent and find a new strategy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s over one way or the other. The games are played for that reason. Accept it and enjoy.

The team is wiser

Thankfully, I watch the interviews and I can see all of this is understood by those players. Thankfully, I think that these players have the sense to know they’ve found something that works, but also the experience to know they’ve enjoyed some luck. Thankfully, they are not the one-dimensional adherents to the theory that shots released from the stick, if provided in enough volume, will always prevail.

These Habs have been coached well not only in back-checking and counterattack, but also in grounding. They know that luck received must be appreciated, but never expected, and that hard work doesn’t always pay off.

Most importantly, they seem to have learned that the future is unclear, that a conference final in hand is better than two, three or ten in the bush.

I have to say, in light of all the rest, their good sense makes them even more intriguing to watch.

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