To see the rather large football media do a complete heel-turn on Tim Tebow is ridiculous. He’s gone from an unconventional college boy who couldn’t take a snap or throw a football to a religious figure who can’t lose a game.
It’s ridiculous. There were no laws of nature preventing an untalented guy from finding success, just as there no laws of nature allowing a guy to do nothing but win. There is nobody in the history of sports who never lost. We know that Tebow’s luck, and, by extension, the luck of the Denver Broncos will run out because you just can’t keep winning games in overtime, by three points, coming from behind.
For all those wondering why Tim Tebow, a man who we have grown accustomed to feeling sick about hearing about, is mentioned on a hockey blog, is because in the hockey world, we have our own Tim Tebow. Mike Yeo, rookie head coach of the Minnesota Wild, who even has his own church.
Minnesota leads the NHL in the two categories that matter the most in the standings: wins and points, with 20 and 43 of those, respectively. They’re also fourth in the entire NHL in goals against average, but before you consider that they are the best defensive team in the league, playing a style reminiscent to their days with Jacques Lemaire, just wait a second.
The Wild are 30th in the NHL in shots per game. They are also 29th in the NHL in shots allowed per game. With the score tied, the Wild are the worst team in the league at generating shots—just an astoundingly low 41% of play is at the opponent’s end of the ice.
For the Sporting News last week, hockey reporter Jesse Spector took a look at what Minnesota is doing differently from other teams. Here’s what Mike Yeo is recorded as saying:
“We wanted to establish our own brand of hockey. With that, we wanted to establish a culture here that was about winning, doing things that winners do, day in and day out. … It’s been a process for us, and the guys have bought in right from the start and we’ve been making some great progress.”
I don’t get this “winning culture” argument. If a team could simply create a culture of winning, we would have more repeat Stanley Cup winners than we do. There is not a group of 23 hockey players you could put together on a team that wouldn’t want to win as badly as I’m sure the players on the Minnesota Wild do.
“While there are outliers every year,” writes Spector, “the Wild have been oustripping even the most optimistic victory rates for those usually telltale situations,” referring to those situations where the Wild succeed the most: they are 12-6 when giving up the first goal; 9-5 when leading after the first period.
It isn’t conventional, and, yes, it’s ugly. Even watching a Wild game, you begin to notice just how much of the game takes place right in front of goaltenders Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, or Matt Hackett. Teams simply do not win being outshot on a nightly basis. Against Phoenix on Saturday, they took home a 4-1 win despite being outshot 36-20. On Thursday, being outshot by the Kings 44-24, they managed a 4-2 win. In their current 7-game winning streak, they have been outshot by a margin of 243-170. It defies all logic. And it’s cool that they’re defying logic, because sports would be boring if no teams did, if the best teams always went 82-0. But just because you defy logic for a month or two, doesn’t mean it can continue to last.
Returning to the Tebow analogy: If you flip a coin that will end up as “heads” just 40% of the time six times, you have less than half of a percentage point of turning up heads six straight times. Consider our coin the Broncos quarterback. With 32 quarterbacks in the league, every seven years should we come up with a gem of a season from a pivot who has somehow been able to win six consecutive games defying all logic in this regard. Because it’s Tebow, it goes from a statistical anomaly to story pretty quickly.
To root against the Wild, Tebow, or any underdog is to root against our primal nature as sports fans. We don’t tune in to the game so that we can see things unfold exactly as planned, we tune in because we have no idea. All these numbers, stats, rates and measures have such little bearing over the course of one individual game, but, over time, when the luck balances out and when the Wild, Tebow or any other underdog regress to the mean, we need to be able to point to why.
I’m done with presenting reasons as to why the Wild will start to lose games, but I’m accepting it as an unfortunate inevitability, because, eventually, the Minnesota Wild will start to lose games. Their method of success, riding unconscious goaltending, is unsustainable. The underdog can’t always win. Paul Kariya understood this in 2003, when he bolted the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim for the Colorado Avalanche, despite being a single game away from the Stanley Cup, losing to the New Jersey Devils after an improbable run by Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
What the Wild are going through is not unlike Tebow’s situation, or that of the 2003 Mighty Ducks. Or the 2004 Calgary Flames, 2006 Edmonton Oilers, 1999 Buffalo Sabres, 1998 Washington Capitals, 1994 Vancouver Canucks, or any other hockey team that went on a run that was quite literally too good to be true.
The numbers and measures that we use are able to determine how good a hockey team might be are just that: determining how good a team is. But the best hockey teams don’t always win every given game: no team can expect to go 82-0. So much can happen—an untimely clang off the goal-post or a goalie not squeezing the legs just in time, and these things, as we’ve seen from years of data, have evened out over the years.
Minnesota may make the playoffs, even though the numbers are saying they shouldn’t. But accepting that Mike Yeo’s winning culture is a recipe for sustained success isn’t anything Wild fans ought to trick themselves into doing. I’ll cheer for them, because it’s fun to see success against the odds. And I will do this, just like for Tim Tebow, as long as their eventual critics promise to try not to jump through too many hoops to disparage them when their luck eventually runs out.