Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Stanley Cup Finals Interruption: Post-season Hits, PIMs, and Trends

Two-thirds of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals are in the books, and the series is squared at two games per side. Headed into this series, I was rooting for seven games first, a Vancouver victory second. Headed into this series, having watched perhaps more post-season hockey in 2011 than in any other playoffs of my 16-year history as a fan, it did not occur to me that, four games in, I would have watched a total of 23 percent of the series.

Sad but true. For game one, the wife and I were en route to Casa Old No. 7, and I had to follow the game via tweets, courtesy of NHL, Dave Lozo, Corey Masisak, and Shawn Roarke. This was, as one might imagine, a bit overkill, but Mr. Roarke was the only one who responded to my question regarding who’d be tweeting, and when he did, it was too late. That is, I’d already turned on phone notifications for each of those Twitter accounts, and we were already on the road. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, know that I do not have a smart phone. On purpose. I don’t need to be getting on Facebook, Twitter, or the Internets in general any more than I already am. My phone does, however, have the ability to get online, and it even has a social-media function, but firing it up would inflate our bill, and that’s a conversation with the wife I’d rather not have, so I get tweets as texts from the Twitter accounts I've enabled. This can be both great and miserable.

The other twist to this is that, six months ago, I would’ve been able to -– and in fact did –- operate the road-trip vehicle while reading and crafting tweets, but I could only get away with it while the wife (pregnant at the time) was asleep. Yes, I know one shouldn’t text while driving, and one should certainly not tweet while driving. And yes, I know that doing so with a pregnant lady in the car is ridiculous and selfish, but we’re talking about driving across Kansas at night on a state highway. It’s flat, straight, and filled with towns that force you to slow down as you traverse them. And besides, she was only sleeping for a little bit. And also besides, Five-hour Energy!

Now, we have a baby, and said infant was on the road trip with us, so all bets were off. No texting/tweeting while driving with wife and child on board. I may or may not’ve managed to squeeze in a few at the tail end of the return trip while the wife was in the back seat, so it’s possible that I’m an all-around dirt bag either way you slice it, but the point is this: As we embarked, I asked my wife if she was ready to handle the serious tweet load she would have to read aloud to me. Being the kind lady that she is, she agreed. What was funny was that, being not-all-that familiar with Twitter’s fine intricacies, she was not aware of hash tags, at-symbol implications, or the inherent sarcasm font typically associated with many tweeters. So, for game one, a tweet that might look like this:

cmasisak22 Make that 46 shots for both teams - 26 for #bruins and 20 for #canucks. #math #vanbos

was read: “See Masisak two two. Make that 46 shots for both teams – 26 for pound Bruins and 20 for pound Canucks pound math pound Van Boss.”

And believe me when I say there were between 150-200 tweets -- there was also a Phish show in progress -- that came in for that game, so that was a kick for the both of us.

Anyhow, that was game one, and upon arrival in Durango, I made the request that the TV be available for game two viewing, which it was. Problem was that day drinking prevented me from seeing periods two, three, and the overtime. For game three, we were driving back home, and arrived in time for only the third period. Last night, I had a hockey game that also started at 7 p.m. Central, so I got to the watch party at the bar just in time for period three. So basically, I’ve cobbled together three periods of this series, and that totally blows, but I’ve been able to keep up with what’s been going on, no problem.

In case you haven’t been following my Stanley Cup Playoffs comparison series, allow me to bring you up to speed. At the conclusion of each round, I’ve put together a brief analysis of the round, some predictions for the upcoming round, and a look at some statistics for this current post-season, as well as some numbers from each of the previous 10 seasons. It’s been fascinating to gather the data, and namely, I’ve been interested in how many shots are registering, how many goals are being scored, how many major Penalties in Minutes (PIMs) are occurring, how many overtime periods are being played, whether or not the home team has had an advantage, and how many games per series, on average, take place in the playoffs.

Obviously, this round isn’t over, but two things prompted me to drop in a mid-series interruption. The first was the hit on Nathan Horton from Aaron Rome, and the tempers that flared immediately following it. Regarding the specific incident, I think the suspension is the smallest punishment the league could have levied. Were it me handing out the consequence, I’d make him sit until Horton’s back in the Boston lineup next season, assuming of course, that he will be. Right now, the National Hockey League is dealing with the same issue –- head injuries -– that the National Football League is, and opinions are going to fly, but the bottom line is a little organ called the brain, and the relativity it has to a high-functioning life for the remainder of an athlete’s career, and beyond.

The culture must be changed. No longer can a guy get blown up for cruising through the neutral zone with his head down, which is what Horton was doing, and which is what used to be coached. Finish you check. This is not to say that you can’t drill a dude that has his head down, be he in the neutral zone or elsewhere. It is to say that you may not deliver a blow to an opponent’s melon, and you may not leave your feet, under any circumstance, to hit a guy. Rome was guilty of both, and in my opinion, the lateness of the hit is the least important of those three aspects, but you didn’t come here to read my NHL-rules preachings, did you?

Of course you didn’t. The hit, then, and the post-hit scuffles were the first thing that prompted me. The second was a tweet from Chris Jones (link). It said this:

“There’s a good story to be written on the Myth of the Big Check. Nobody scares anymore. They just get pissed.”

When I read that, I had one of those bizarre comprehension farts where you think you understand what you’re reading, but your brain isn’t convinced so you read it two or three more times before that chunk of inner monologue says, See I knew I knew what it meant.

And he makes a solid point. Back in the day, you had your mix of guys on a given roster. Your scorers, your playmakers, your two-way guys, the anchors of your D, and your enforcers. This isn’t different by significant measures today. Teams still have a collection of personnel similar to that, only the presence of the enforcer, or goon, if you will, has diminished. Don’t misunderstand. Those dudes are still out there, they just have a little bit of face paint on, and coaches are less apt to send their brawler out when they see that their bench-boss counterpart has done the same. That used to happen a lot, and more often than not, hyjinks would ensue. Of course, by “hyjinks,” I mean donnybrooks.

Such a substitution would occur for one of two reasons: 1) The game was out of hand, and the losing squad was going to blacken a few eyes before hitting the showers, or 2) Somebody had blown up a finesse skater, and the favor was to be returned. Either way, it was an act of vengeance, a way to both get in the head of the foe, and actually punch said foe in said head at the same time.

Fighting in hockey embodies divisiveness. It’s been a part of the game for a long time, and the appropriate thing –- if you wanna get P.C. -– to do is to eliminate it. But you can’t, because in a game that fast and that physical, tempers will flare, and let’s face it: Nothing gets Average Joe Hockeyfan more fired up then some good old-fashioned helmet punching. So the undecided-upon solution, in my estimation, has been to keep the fighting in the game, but try to hide it a touch. Make it not so obvious.

But let me back up a second. You, as a coach, would send your enforcer out there, usually as part of your fourth line, also known as your checking line (another term you don’t hear that much anymore), and you want him to clobber the other club’s golden boy, the one that keeps making your goaltender look like a sieve. If successful, Johnny Shot will be a little more tentative the next time he comes into the zone, and, in fact, he might even dish off a pass instead of firing a wrister from the slot. Mission accomplished. You’ve gotten in his head, you’ve scared him -– as Jones said –- and in doing so, you’ve minimized the potential offensive firepower of your opponent.

Not anymore. Instead of scaring, “They just get pissed.”

This, I think, is the trend I’ve been seeing specifically regarding major PIMs in the last 10 post-seasons. Before we get into it, though, it’s important to clarify a couple of points. First, the regular season matters. A lot. Occasional criticism suggests that allowing 16 teams to qualify for the post-season is too many. This is hogwash. As clubs approach the home stretch of regular-season play, point differentials –- the way you qualify for the playoffs -– are often neck-and-neck. Clubs are leapfrogging each other daily -- sometimes multiple times a day -- for that eighth and final conference seed, and so getting a win, be it in regulation or in an overtime contest, is huge. One loss can keep you out of contention, and there are even times in which you see a tiebreak situation occur, such as what was nearly the case with Dallas and Chicago at the end of this regular season. Dallas beats Minnesota to close out their season, and both the Stars and the Blackhawks are sitting at 97 points. Dallas, however, dropped that game to the Wild, and Chicago’s in. It happens.

Also, all penalties matter. Some are simple infractions. Some occur trying to prevent a big play, or the development of a potential scoring chance, and some are foundations to later fights, and subsequent majors. Majors are a thread past the boiling point, when things get out of hand, and fights break out, and guys are protecting their teammates, and violators are finding themselves tossed from the contest, which is why I find it important to focus on them. Every team gets called for a slash here, a trip there, an interference away from the play, but it’s the major penalties that change the swing of a game, or even a series. So they matter. A lot.

The thing that ties them together, in my estimation, is that, in the post-season, the thought used to be -– at least in my head –- that that shit all gets scaled down when a chance to play for the Cup is on the line. You don’t spear a guy in the post-season, or get yourself ejected courtesy of a game misconduct because you lost your cool and detached a guy’s head from his torso. Too much is at stake. It seems, however, that the game is trending away from that, and that now, all bets are off. You cross-check my linemate, and I’m’a take your D man’s knee out on the next shift. I don’t care if it’s the freaking Conference Finals; you’re going down, bro. It’s as if Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon” is playing in every locker room before every game.

Anyway, the numbers.

I mentioned this in my last playoff post, but it’s worth reiterating: In the previous 10 Stanley Cup Playoffs, through the first three rounds, the average number of major PIMs per post-season is 386. This year, through the Conference Finals, there were 555. For those keeping score at home, that’s an 18 percent increase. When we crunch those numbers at the conclusion of the playoffs, it could be down a few percentage points, but given what Boston and Vancouver have shown us thus far, I kinda doubt it.

So there’s that, and there’s this:

In the previous 10 post-seasons, 44 times out of 862 games (roughly five percent), a series had multiple games with major PIMs in it. In 24 of those occasions (55 percent), a series had consecutive games with major PIMs in it. Of the 44 incidents, 24 took place in the Conference Quarter-Finals; 17 occurred in the Semis; four in the Conference Finals; and three were in direct contention for Lord Stanley. A breakdown of the 24 in the situations with consecutive games with major PIMs looks like this: 16 in the Quarters; four in the Semis; three in the Conference Finals, and one in the Finals.

There are plenty of series that go without a major penalty assessed. But it’s telling that five percent of the time a series had more than one situation in which someone went to the box for more than a double minor. It suggests that players, no matter how much they might say they do, do not have short-term memories. It’s as if they’re thinking, We’ll see each other again before this is over. What’s even more telling is that in more than half of those series, major PIMs were handed out in consecutive games. As if they’re thinking, You’ll get yours the day after tomorrow. In the end, five percent is a small number. It makes sense when you consider the theory of having the hardware on the line.

Now, if you look at this post-season:

Eighty-six games have been played, and on no fewer than 10 occasions has there been a series that had multiple games with major PIMs. That calculates to 11 percent; more than double what we saw in the previous 10 post-seasons. Six times this post-season, consecutive games with major PIMs have been played, or seven percent; also more than double the previous 10 playoffs. The round breakdown shows the multiple-game numbers as six in the CQFs, one in the CSFs, two in conference-final play, and one so far in the Finals. The crunched numbers for consecutive-game majors is four in the CQFs, one in the Conference Finals, and one so far in the Finals.

Without irony is this assessment: Of those 10 times in which a series has had multiple games with major PIMs, four have involved the Boston Bruins, while Vancouver was in on three of them. I’m not here to stand up for either club, regardless of my horse in the race. But for those penning headlines and articles calling the Canucks dirty and claiming their style of play to be of the filthy variety, let the record show that they took off the Nashville series in terms of awarded major PIMs, while Boston has received some in each of their four matchups.

The last order of business is to attempt to assess any possible chronological differences in these penalties, and the best way I saw fit to do so was to look at major PIMs pre-lockout (2004-05) and post. So if you take the previous 10 post-seasons, and add this year’s playoffs (thus far) to it, here’s what you get:

Fifty-four total times the league has seen a series have multiple games with major PIMs in it. Fifteen of those occasions occurred pre-lockout, while 39 happened this side of it. For those without a calculator, 72 percent of the instances took place once the work stoppage ended. On 30 occasions, series have had consecutive games in which major PIMs were assessed. Eight of those were between the 1999-2000 and 2003-04 campaigns; 22 took place beginning with 2005-06 through this current round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a figure that registers in at 73 percent.

I don’t mean to imply that the lockout had a direct impact on the staggering difference in PIMs there, and I don’t think that you should either. What I think has happened is precisely what Mr. Jones has suggested: The days of the goon getting in your head and intimidating you have passed the game by. You can still have your enforcer, and he can enforce all he wants, but when the plates are cleared and the dishes are done, you better have had eyes in the back of your head, because guys are comin’ for you, and you don’t know who and you don’t know when.

But they’re comin’, they’re comin’ hard, and getting the gate for an infraction portends to stop roughly nobody these days. It’s a rough game out there, and if you mess with one of my boys, you can all but guarantee that the tooth fairy’s comin’ for one of your Chiclets, and she ain’t got no currency to hand you for it neither. It’s as if the league, via on-ice officials, are doing everything in their power to keep the monkey business to a minimum, and guys are depending on deep benches to replace, produce, and in some occasions, continue to retaliate, an effort that appears to be counter-productive to what the officials aim to achieve.

All of this is fine by me. I think the game's better than ever before. This was one way of looking at it. Another is to watch game tape of every game played in each of the past 10 regular and post-seasons and take notes. Trouble is, I don't have the time to do that, and as things stand right now, I'm fresh out of interns.