When chance is your best chance

Skill vs. chance

Tyler Dellow has an excellent post over on his blog at mc79hockey.com wherein he compares hockey to soccer and decries the defense first style that gets so much media attention in today’s NHL. At least the playoff edition.

But while I agree that it would be nice to have teams play a more entertaining brand of hockey, I just don’t think it’s realistic.

Luck and chance play a significant role in the outcome of hockey games, and a short series is not long enough to smooth out the effects. The application of skill to create scoring chances (i.e. lottery tickets with a higher % chance of being winners, Kent Wilson describes them at NHLNumbers) can tilt the odds in favour of the more skilled team:

Luck takes skill

If you are, or even just think you are, the less skilled team in the match-up, the incentive to eliminate scoring chances against and bring those odds back to even is pretty enticing. And in fact, it is easiest, and, for the 3/4 of the league that doesn’t have the skill level, most effective, to play defense. To prevent, rather than to enable. To destroy, rather than to create.

As long as these defense-only tactics are allowed and/or rules against are not enforced, they will be resorted to when the Cup is on the line.

So yes, English soccer is dominated by talk of "tackling" but the English Premier League is usually considered the top league in the world (at least by the casual fan, like me). Just like in the NHL, where the talk is all about blocking shots and other things you do when you don’t have the puck.

Ilya Kovalchuk wasn’t quite right when he said hockey was not like chess. True, there’s no punching in chess, but there’s plenty of checking and you need to topple the King to win, much like the dominant narrative in this year’s edition of the Stanley Cup playoffs:

Hockey is like chess

There are a handful of teams that have tried to build up and rely on skill superiority to get them to the Cup. The Red Wings are probably the best example, in that they have been successful. The Canucks are another example, although their lack of success allows the narrative to focus on other aspects of their game that are common to most other teams, but only seem to be negatively attributed to them.

But really, it all comes back to this:

"Hockey respects skill and it treasures toughness, but it loves only winning."*

You can be as entertaining as you want, but if you don’t win, nobody cares:

Suddently, it stopped being fun

 * I told you last week that this sentence perfectly describes hockey, so I may just have to refer to it in every post going forward…