Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hoserdome 2009: Malkin from Mlodinow as Pens collect Cup

The Pittsburgh Penguins are walking around with Stanley Cup-sized hangovers and meantime, we should all be reading The Drunkard's Walk.

That Stanley Cup final which wrapped up last night is a good chance to reflect on randomness, which ruled this series. Randomness is good in sports. You don't want the odds-on fave winning all the time, it would be boring. So randomness it is for choosing a tell-all for the decider, where the Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings 2-1. Why the hell not?

The road team won — which had not happened in Game 7 of the final since 1971. The Penguins beat the Red Wings, who almost never lose at home at the playoffs. The Pens were outscored 17-14 in the series, including 12-4 at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena. They won even though Sidney Crosby had many points in the final series as non-factor Marian Hossa. Crosby was also knocked out of Game 7 halfway through after his left knee was squished between the Wings' Johan Franzen and the boards. That should disabuse anyone of the notion the Penguins winning was some inside job orchestrated by the NHL to keep NBC happy.

The offensive hero of the decider, Max Talbot, who scored both Penguins goals, was not mentioned in a pregame Yahoo! Sports column on which listed twenty-seven potential Game 7 heroes. In the final two minutes, the Red Wings nearly forced overtime; a shot by Niklas Kronwall pinged the crossbar and ricocheted out instead of into the net and Pittsburgh goalie Marc-André Fleury made the save of his life, sliding cross-crease to deny Nicklas Lidström with one second left.

For this ass-talker's purposes, random is as much of a descriptive for this series as great. The choice here before Game 1 two weeks ago was "Pittsburgh in 7." It was not borne out of believing that Pittsburgh was the better team. It was steeped more in a passage from Leonard Mlodinow's best-seller, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, which sports economist David Berri posted at The Wages of Wins Journal a couple weeks back:
"... if one team is good enough to warrant beating another in 55% of its games, the weaker team will nevertheless win a 7-game series about 4 times out of 10. And if the superior team could beat its opponent, on average, 2 out of 3 times they meet, the inferior team will still win a 7-game series about once every 5 match-ups. There is really no way for a sports league to change this."
It seemed like a good bit of back-pocket knowledge, especially since well before the playoffs, James Mirtle had written something along the lines of, "I'm starting to think this will be a year where we see a random Stanley Cup champion." It also provided basis for going against the grain beyond being, shudder, a contrarian for contrarian's sake.

Detroit seemed like the superior team, but not vastly superior to the Penguins, especially to someone who had no way of knowing for sure about each team's injuries. The Penguins were good enough to win a Stanley Cup and as Outliers argued, you don't have to be super-qualified, you just have to be qualified.

Berri's predictions for the NBA's conference finals indirectly (or perhaps not) illustrated the point. His analysis backed up what everyone who only half-follows hoops knew, that the Cleveland Cavaliers and L.A. Lakers were supposed to win in a pair of walkovers, five games maximum. You know the rest of the story. The Cavaliers were upended in six games by the Orlando Magic. Berri penned a follow-up called, "Fooled By Randomness," explaining,well, shit happens. As sports fans, we shouldn't run from it. We should embrace it.
"The small sample we see in the playoffs imposes an element of randomness on the outcome. This randomness makes it interesting, but it also makes decision-making complicated."
The New York Times' review of The Drunkard's Walk explains how people don't appreciate randomness when they're making predictions:
"... Anyone who has ever bought a mutual fund because it has been on a roll or bet that a racehorse will extend its winning streak has fallen into the same confusion. Chances are the champion will regress toward the mean and another will have its glory day. In all life's games, some players are better than others, but randomness maintains the upper hand.

Hardest of all for our blinkered brains are cases involving Bayesian statistics, where one must gauge how the probability of one event hinges on that of another."
One event hinging on that of another? That sounds much like the hockey media's tendency to form an opinion of what's going to happen in the next game based on the last game, or the last one in the arena of the team which has home ice. The way the Stanley Cup final played out certainly left everyone covering the series totally bumfuzzled.

The Red Wings won the first two games in Detroit, which was taken to mean that the Penguins were too young and and immature. The young and immature Penguins bounced back by winning the next two games, which indicated the Red Wings were old and tired. The old and tired Red Wings then blew the Penguins off the ice in a 5-0 rout in Game 5 last Saturday, chasing Fleury halfway through the game, hence the Penguins were done. At that point, the Anna Faris character from House Bunny (oh, don't act like you didn't download it) would have chimed in, "Ya, hence!"

Of course, Pittsburgh won three nights later at home to force Game 7. No one really knew what to believe anymore. It's not clear if the predictions for the winner-take-all game broke down along any blogger-vs. MSM lines. Puck Daddy surveyed eight hockey guys who write mostly for a web audience and five chose the Penguins.

Maybe everyone was just tired of Detroit winning. There are also straightforward hockey explanations. For one, Pittsburgh's rookie coach Dan Bylsma made some adjustments in Game 6 (James Mirtle, From The Rink). Marc-André Fleury had one hell of an evenout in Game 7 after struggling terribly in his previous outings in Detroit.

Secondary scoring also helps. Scratch a hockey coach whose team just lost a tightly contested series and he'll often tell you it could have been different if someone off the second and third line could have just popped a couple goals. The Penguins' winning goals in Games 6 and 7 came from Tyler Kennedy (15 goals and 35 points in the regular season) and Talbot (12 and 22). Meantime, the Red Wings also had five forwards who were, in hockey parlance, squeezing the stick exceptionally hard. Hossa, Tomas Holmström, Hart Trophy finalist Pavel Datsyuk (who was dealing with a foot injury), Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson all went goal-less in the final, finishing with scoring droughts ranging between eight and 19 games.

There's a randomness to that. Could anyone have foreseen Talbot scoring four goals in the final after scoring two in the first three playoff series? Could have anyone have predicted all five of those players going stone-cold at the same time? Likely not. Mlodinow's point about what can happen when one team should beat the other 55% of the time seems to apply.

It would be nice to say yours truly had the courage of his convictions throughout the past two weeks, but I turtled. On Kinger's sports talk radio show on CFRC 101.9 in Kingston, I stuck by the Pittsburgh pick, simply saying, "I'm going to ride it out, like George Costanza when he had that bad stock." It turns out that was the smart play (and in that Seinfeld episode, George ends up with a financial windfall after deciding to "go down with the ship.")

The Penguins were full value for their effort. Writing this is just a way to point out that while everything is so black-and-white in how sports are presented, with winners and losers, really it's not. There was some randomness to how this went down; that's one simplification among dozens.

At the very least, it is one way to disabuse anyone who says the Red Wings are over the hill when, as Mirtle says, "Detroit's got the top minds in the game in the front office and behind the bench, and I have no doubt they'll be back in the finals in the near future."

In sports, sometimes the winning team is the one that executes when an opportunity comes along. It can be completely random, like outcomes in everyday life. It sure made for a hell of a series.

P.S. Did anyone else have an issue with Hockey Night in Canada's Don Cherry referring to the season as "nine months of war" last night? War metaphors in sports are usually a no-no and it seems kind of hypocritical coming from someone who's always talking about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. It's almost like Cherry, a smart man, should be more aware of the distinction.

Playing The Odds (George Johnson, The New York Times, June 8, 2008)

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