Monday, June 8, 2009

How should a team react to a blowout?

First of all -- damn, there are a LOT of Star-Wars-lovin' hockey fans out there. Who knew?

Watching the Pens lose badly on Saturday put a cramp in the theory that they're playing the role of plucky underdog. They simply looked overwhelmed, overmatched, and extremely frustrated. Kinda like Chicago after 4 games of playing the Wings.

But the goonery at the end of Game 5 brought up an interesting philosophical point: how should a team react to being blown out in the playoffs?

Hockey, of course, usually features evenly-played matches at this point in the season. We're so used to quadruple-overtime marathons that we almost look forward them (almost). Usually a Finals team plays every minute of the series under extreme pressure to perform, because there's a legitimate hope that they could turn the game around with a single play. But when that possibility is reduced to nil, as when the Pens had to skate onto the ice for a third period trailing 5-0, some interesting decisions have to be made by the coaching staff.

As Billy Shakespeare might have put it, had he been an NBC color commentator:

To goon, or not to goon: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the third period to suffer
Twenty minutes of left-wing lock
Or to take arms against a sea of Swedes,
And send a friggin' message to those #$%*!

Of course, the rule of thumb is that the Finals are no place for thuggery. But I would argue the opposite -- if the Pens lose tomorrow, their season is over. They have literally nothing to lose by roughing up the Wings, so long as nobody gets suspended.

The greater question, then: is it the right decision?

The historic record would suggest that there actually is some advantage to late-game goonery. In the past 20 years, over the course of 99 Finals games, Saturday's was only the 10th time in which a team won by more than 3 goals. In three of the previous nine, the losing team decided to get rough in the closing period -- and have gone 2-1 so far in the next game. Those who chose not to push the limits have gone 2-3.

The psychology behind these decisions is simple: you're at the climax of 8 months of grueling effort. You have only one or two games left at most. The other team sees you as weak, relenting, ready to break. If you choose to hang your head and skate away, you've got a much lesser chance of stunning those guys in the next matchup. They already know they can beat you, and that you'll let them.

So the Pens may have been wise to let the primal rage flow for a few moments. Kinda like Luke in Empire Strikes Ba... awww, never mind.

Here's how the previous matchups played out:

2006 Game 2: Carolina def. Edmonton 5-0
Ethan Moreau punched Glen Wesley in the face; Georges Laraque got thrown out for hitting from behind. Ugly stuff. But Edmonton won the next game, and eventually overcame a 2-0 series deficit before falling in 7.
2006 Game 6: Edmonton def. Carolina 4-0
The Canes went down quietly, but came back to win the 7th game.

2001 Game 1: Colorado def. New Jersey 5-0
Ignoring the Avs' hot power play, the Devils gooned it up in the third. The penalty parade was led by Ken Daneyko and Sean O'Donnell, who was kicked out for instigating. Jersey bounced back to win the next game, and eventually led the series 3-2.
2001 Game 6: Colorado def. New Jersey 4-0
The Devils racked up two fights, a high-sticking and a roughing penalty in the final two minutes of the game. That didn't stop the Avs from winning Game 7.

2000 Game 1: New Jersey def. Dallas 7-3
Dallas took the loss more or less in stride, and won the next game 2-1. They lost the series in 6.

1997 Game 3: Detroit def. Philadelphia 6-1
Lindros and Co. looked shell-shocked throughout this game. They didn't put up much of a fight in this game, or when the sweep was completed two nights later.

1996 Game 2: Colorado def. Florida 8-1
The final 40 minutes of this game were a snoozer as the Panthers simply skated the time away. They lost in an extremely unmemorable sweep. (It's no coincidence that Claude Lemieux didn't play in this game)

1991 Game 6: Pittsburgh def. Minnesota 8-0
The Pens won the Cup in this game, making "messages" a non-issue.

1990 Game 2: Edmonton def. Boston 7-1
Boston was stunned not only by the overwhelming Oilers, but also to a horrific series of injuries and poor defensive plays. As with the Panthers 6 years later, they simply skated out the clock and fell in a one-sided series.

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