I don’t think we can ever understand why things take place the way they do during a single hockey game. The devil is in the details, the result of the game hinging on the result of events made bigger by their circumstance, projected up against a large white wall for all to see.

In the wake of the losses of two Stanley Cup favourites, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Vancouver Canucks, you can have little doubt that, hockey being as important as it is in those two cities, every important play will be broken down. Every second that a writer or an ex-player spends staring at the projected image, you can find fault in a new way, a new way that maybe the defenceman could have adjusted on the winning goal, a new way for the goalie to react to the shot, a new way for the forward to create space on the breakout.

I’m watching this Jarrett Stoll game winner over the Canucks, trying exactly to deduce what it is people will find fault with in the coming days about this play. It’s sure to come.

The brief clip that NHL.com offers of the goal doesn’t have much lead-up to the play. Dan Hamhuis comes around his own net, pursued by a forechecking Trevor Lewis. There’s nothing too worrisome about this play. Trevor Lewis is like a lot of Los Angeles Kings, a player with a fine appetite for driving possession, but limited ability to shoot the puck. He spends more time relative to his teammates in the defensive zone, so a play-driving defenceman like Hamhuis should have no trouble moving the puck against him.

Let’s go through and see what we can learn:

15:41 - Hamhuis moves the puck out from behind his own net. He’s separated by Lewis by about half a stride. He has Sami Salo and Samuel Pahlsson, two veteran defensive players, in support.

15:40 - Stoll cuts across Hamhuis’ skating path, forcing Hamhuis to cut in front of Pahlsson, who has difficulty improvising. But now he has about two strides difference between him and Lewis, and Stoll is turned the other way. Jim Hughson, the CBC broadcaster, tempting fate, calls this “a nice evasive move”.

15:39 - Pahlsson goes off on a change, but Hamhuis cuts up-ice too quickly, allowing Lewis all kinds of time to pick off the puck. Where is the winger on the right? Surely there is a player Hamhuis could dump the puck forward to and get it out of harm’s way, but he instead skates right into it.

(I think it was at this point watching the game that I really smelled trouble. Pahlsson and Salo look eager to change, and Salo will be caught flat-footed if the puck turns around)

(It does)

15:38 - Hamhuis begins to fall, but Pahlsson is already committed to the change. Whoever is on the wing, be it Mason Raymond or Jannik Hansen, has not picked up any of the Kings’ forwards in the neutral zone, both of whom have a very good chance to pick up the puck. Salo was apparently more confident than I was in Hamhuis’ move up the ice, since he’s headed to the bench.

15:37 - Hamhuis mitigates his fall by pulling down Lewis by tugging on his stick. This infraction is not called, and two Los Angeles forwards rush to the puck as Salo resumes a defensive posture.

15:36 - Stoll has the puck, with Dwight King headed towards the middle of wide-open ice. Sami Salo is choosing his man, I think.

15:35 - Now you can see Jannik Hansen coming into the picture in defence, but Stoll has a direct lane to the net. I’m sure somebody actually educated in hockey Xs and Os would be able to explain what Salo is supposed to be doing on this play, but so far his gravest mistake has been “have your defence partner blow a tire”.

15:34 - Stoll shoots, season over.

In just an eight second span, the Canucks’ season, which lasted more than 88 hours, came to a crashing halt. Eight seconds is all it takes.

If you’re looking at just the projected image, maybe you can make some assumptions. Well, gee, maybe Dan Hamhuis is an offensively-minded defenceman who takes risks and isn’t good at making the first pass. Jarrett Stoll has a terrific shot. Samuel Pahlsson isn’t defensively responsible enough to be trusted on the ice in overtime.

We know that none of these things are true, just from what we’ve watched over the years. Paying attention to a few seconds of a game clearly isn’t enough to make a clear decision or form an opinion about hockey players.

(Not that video analysis isn’t good. I love reading Justin’s Systems Analyst posts on this blog. They’re highly educational, and I don’t think I’ve ever read Justin try to spin a single play from an SA post into an absolute truth about a player or team. The point I’m making with the game-winning goal video is that small samples are awful for determining a hockey player’s ability, playing style, or talent level. It’s not that Hamhuis didn’t mess up on the play, it’s that he doesn’t do that often.)

I didn't actually watch this game, but even if I did, it wouldn't change my opinion on Sidney Crosby too much.

You need the full picture. You can talk all day about Vancouver’s inability to win in the postseason, and continually flesh out the pictures that ignore the thesis, such as the one used above this post. You can say “a team with Roberto Luongo or the Sedins as key players can’t win anything” as DVDs of the 2006 and 2010 Olympic gold medal games lie unignored on the table next to you.

At some point, all that will be left to project is a few games where a team competed exactly as you said they would. By fooling around with the machinery, you can also prove that the Vancouver Canucks are bad in Game 19 of the season, having lost the last three years by a combined score of 18-3.

Perspective, when paying attention to the small moments, is lost. The Vancouver Canucks played 87 games this season. The Pittsburgh Penguins played 88 games. Their seasons, compromising of 175 total games (although I guess 174 if you consider the one game the team’s played against one another) can’t be judged exclusively by their performance in eight of them.

Without using all the available information, there’s no way you can expect to get anything right. The playoffs are a fun way to close out a season, introducing an element of luck to an already complex game we don’t really understand. As a marker for how players and teams will perform in any given situation? That’s more of a stretch.

A season can last for thousands of minutes and end in eight seconds. You need to look at far more than just those eight seconds to be able to tell exactly why a season ended.

Comments (14)

  1. Every fan should read this before waxing poetic about how different the playoffs are (“heart”, “grit”, “clutch”, “need more Canadians”, etc.) and throwing 82 samples out the window in favor of 5.

    I find it hilarious, in a mathematical sense, that people knock Billy Beane for “not winning a championship” when he notes right up front, in the pages of Moneyball, that he has, by structural inevitability, little control over the playoffs, only getting there — and that is of course true for everyone.

  2. “We know that none of these things are true, just from what we’ve watched over the years. ”

    Stoll does have a very good shot when he has the time and space to utilise it – he was a shooter, not a deke-er, when he had his crazy shootout season last year. Goalies picked up on that and started overplaying the shot, and that took away a lot of his effectiveness.

    But he’s got good scoring instincts, even if he’s buried on the third or fourth line.

  3. It is reasons like this that I laugh when people are crowning Giroux as the new greatest player in the world and likening him to Mario. All it takes is one 6 game series? If that was true, I could make a pretty strong case for Rinne, Quick, and McDonald.

    • Giroux’s regular season wasn’t exactly bad. Well over a point-per-game player and possibly a Hart candidate. It’s not like he is Bergenheim or Umberger and came out of nowhere with one big series. And small sample size or not, play is more intense in the playoffs. Top-pair Dmen play more minutes, there is more of a focus on line matching.

      The only person comparing Giroux to Lemieux was Jagr, and that was probably just to irk the Penguins even more.

  4. I agree it would be absurd for Vancover to make major changes because of 5 games. This was a team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals just last year. What about Pittsburgh though? Obviously Crosby and Malkin are untouchable, but 3 straight first round exits means the sample size is starting to grow…

  5. Good post Cam. I’ve really been conscious of the small sample size aspect of the playoffs this year, in large part due to your and Ellen’s writing here at BHS.

    It is amazing how much stock hockey myth puts into short moments of competition. If Stephane Matteau doesn’t score in double overtime in Game 7 against the Devils in 1994, and NJ wins that game, does anyone care about Messier’s Game 6 guarantees and do his legendary leadership skills reach the status they have today? If Paul Henderson fails to bang the puck past Tretiak in game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series, does anyone remember his performance in the rest of the series or is he just a footnote in hockey history?

    But we seem to love the narrative, and privilege those moments when players do exceptional things at crucial moments.

  6. Though useful, part of the problem with this analysis is that Playoff hockey is a lot different than regular season hockey. For instance:

    1. You are playing a good team every night (some teams rack up wins against bad opponents)

    2. You may find yourself up against a team that dominates you physically, as LA did to VAN. You may be better than LA in a one game series (i.e. regular season), but they might be better in a 7 games series, as they can use their size to wear you down.

    3. As all players note, the intensity picks up tremendously in the Playoffs. Some players, I suspect, have trouble shifting gears, or may even lack a higher gear to shift into. Conversely, some players may be saving a little something for the playoffs. We might call this heart, or guts, or desire or whatever, but to pretend as though we can dismiss it by Saying “small sample size” goes too far.

    • The fact the team isn’t good enough to give us more than a 5 game sample size has to be brought up here aswell…

    • “1. You are playing a good team every night (some teams rack up wins against bad opponents)”

      Edmonton and Minnesota, come on down!

  7. You don’t need statistics to judge the 5 game series we just witnessed. We saw a team that didn’t play the way they did in the regular season. They spent way too much time and energy trying to chirp the Kings and get under their skin than they did on playing strong hockey. We saw a coach (and possibly a team) with zero confidence in their starting goaltender despite playing well to start the series. We saw a player reprimanded by his coach for talking to much and not focusing on his game. We saw a team that was unable to tighten up their game and improve their focus when the playoffs started. They, as a team, allowed themselves to be distracted and lose sight of what they needed to do to win.

    I agree with Pattywhack, the playoffs are another level. I used to think of the playoffs as the post season, but it is in fact another league entirely. Some guys don’t make the transition, or take to long to get up to speed.

    Vancouver doesn’t need to be changed drastically, but they might need to look at the leadership in some way. It doesn’t take more than 1 game to recognize what Vancouver was doing wrong, and yet, they didn’t seem to get it fixed until game 3 and 4.

  8. No big deal but it is interesting that NOTHING in the analysis
    mentions how Stoll GOT the puck and his “check” on Hamhuis.

  9. What’s really amusing about this post is how it points out just how off the mark Damien Cox’s recent excoriation of the Canucks was.

    To call out Hamhuis for this incident is really telling of the level of “analysis” brought to the table in hockey.

    While there are certainly things we learned about the Canucks (i.e. Pahlson, Salo and Raymond are unlikely to return unless at a discount), the sample size is too small to differentiate between the Canuck’s mistakes and the Kings strengths.

    It’s really easy to see some things the Kings did right: completely eliminate the Canucks ability to breakout and possess the puck. But it actually takes far more work to uncover specific problems let alone distinguish whether each incident is a freak bounce or a notable finding.

    Sigh. The sad truth for most hockey teams is that most playoff losses are due to simply being outplayed by a team that can exploit your weaknesses and in ability to overcome bad bounces. There is no playoff “clutch” factor you can measure in what passes as analysis from most hockey media.

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