In India, at Jagganath temple, there is an annual festival called the Ratha Yatra. The core of the Ratha Yatra is a parade, a procession of chariots through the streets, each chariot carrying one of the gods of the temple. It is considered a great blessing to see and be seen by the gods as they pass by, and believers will crowd close to the chariots in hope of benefiting from the sacred exchange of gazes. Sometimes, though, the pressure of the crowd and the zeal of the faithful will push people closer than it’s safe to get to a moving vehicle. Sometimes people fall. Sometimes people are crushed under the wheels.
Early European observers of this festival thought, fancifully, that the locals were deliberately throwing themselves beneath the chariots, committing suicide-by-parade. Whether this is actually true is seriously doubtful, but the misunderstanding gave us a rather lovely English word: juggernaut, a corruption of Jagganath, something that crushes anything that gets in its way.
Last night, watching the Kings roll implacably over the Coyotes, it would have been easy to believe that the Phoenix team was committing a form of ritual suicide. They’d reached this point, the Conference Final, only two games more slowly than their opponents, 11 games to LA’s 9. Yet now they’re giving up period after period like dominoes falling in a row, each loss bleeding into the next in a a tidy, predictable collapse. Like everyone who’s met the Kings so far, they put up the token gestures of resistance- come out hard, throw a few dirty hits, try to shift the ‘tone’ and the ‘momentum’ of the series- but it falls apart anyway. By the third period, the boys in black aren’t playing hockey anymore, they’re playing Keep-Away, and the Coyotes are chasing the puck haplessly around their own zone in a way that uncomfortably recalls their famous cartoon brother. Don’t call them Kings anymore, call them Roadrunners. Come game four, I fully expect Dustin Brown to pull an Acme Anvil out of his shorts.
Vancouver fell and we all laughed like it was their fault, pilloried Luongo as a failure and the squad as a dirty, diving, whining joke, but then St. Louis went down and we didn’t laugh no more. Sometime during that series, the narrative shifted, from Plucky Eighth Seed Knocks Down Overconfident First to Who the Hell Are These Guys from LA and Are They Going to be Merciful Overlords? We realized, too late, that it isn’t that Vancouver is terrible. Vancouver is actually pretty good. LA is just much, much better. Doesn’t matter if their opponents try to fight or try to run, they roll them over just the same.
But the thing that struck me hard last night is how visible LA’s dominance is. You can see it. You can see the long stretches of offensive zone possession, the clean control of puck and play for minutes at a time. It has been a long time since I have seen a team being this good.
The advanced statisticians are fond of reminding us that our eyes can lie, but in hockey, it’s not really that our eyes see things that aren’t there as that they don’t see a lot of what is there. Hockey is a fractional game. Pick almost any area: shooting, saving, taking face-offs, killing penalties, and the difference between good and bad is a matter of no more than a few percentage points. A player going through the hottest shooting streak of his career will only be shooting 4-5% better than his average. A great face-off man is one who is maybe 3-4% better than a mediocre one. A franchise goalie is only 2-3% better than replacement level. Even in the realm of advanced stats, the Fenwick percentages for every team, from awesome to awful, hover between the mid-forties and the mid-fifties. ‘Sheltered’ players are generally still starting less than 60% of their shifts in the offensive zone. And even a win as emphatic and decisive as the one the Kings just earned over the Coyotes still goes into the record books as a fragile-looking 2-1 victory.
Even dominance in hockey- real, consistent, durable, measurable dominance- rides on hairline margins, edges so thin that, in individual games, they often fail. It is a matter of common knowledge that any given night the best team in the League might show up and inexplicably surrender a 3-0 loss to some energetic bottom feeder. Even the perennially elite franchises- the Detroits and Vancouvers, the Bostons and Pittsburghs- put in plenty of nights of looking like crap, of being done in by bad bounces or weak goaltending. Sometimes, for no clear reason, their very real abilities somehow just don’t show up. There are so many games where the slim, fractional advantages of skill are invisible, smothered under the visceral visual shocks of big hits and glamor saves. In hockey, talent is often subtle, a subterranean current running beneath the bright, loud chaos on the surface.
I have been lied to so many times by this game. I’ve been sold on this or that franchise having some big secret, some charismatic coach or genius system that makes them the Team of Destiny, only to watch them fall apart a month later and toss the coach out on his genius-ass the following fall. I’ve been told tales of all these models- the Anaheim Model, the Chicago Model, the Detroit Model- that work once, for one team, and then get chased ineffectually for years by a bunch of lesser franchises who, trying to follow the supposedly simple directions for this easy-peasy model, just end up with their hands superglued to a shapeless balsawood mess. Destiny turns out to be accident, plans turn out to be chance. I find it very difficult to believe that any team is everything it’s cracked up to be.
But man, these Kings, they just look so brilliant. So clearly and completely and definitively ass-whoopingly eye-catchingly heart-liftingly brilliant. They play the way I’d always hoped a Cup-winning team would play. They play like they are actually so much better than everyone else that they (*gasp*) deserve to win. There’s still a part of me that can’t wholly believe they’re for real. There’s a part of me that’s still tensed for the inevitable fall. But, nevertheless, I hope. I would like to see a team take the Cup this decisively, in less than twenty games. I want to see a juggernaut victory.
The Rangers, as we all know, love to lie down. I can’t help but look forward to seeing LA run them over. It would be metaphorically perfect. And hockey perfect too.