Headline writers are calling Oleg Saprykin the "unlikely hero" of the Flames' 3-2 win over the Lightning in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals Thursday night because he scored the game-winner in overtime, his first goal in 18 games. But the hero was really the most likely of all, Jarome Iginla, the Flames' best player. Maybe anybody's best player.
Iginla not only scored Calgary's second goal unassisted, he set up Saprykin's winner. Playing without the helmet that had been rubbed off his head seemingly hours earlier on the same long shift, Iginla shot from the right faceoff circle on net. Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin made the save square with his chest, but the shot was such a missile he juggled the puck and couldn't find the rebound. Saprykin was there to knock it home.
Here's how great Iginla's play was. Iginla, who was double-shifting, came onto the ice with 6:20 to go in overtime, his fourth shift in a little over three minutes of game time. Tampa Bay's top line, featuring Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, hopped on the ice during the same on-the-fly change. At 5:56, after a scrum at the side of the net on a scoring chance, Iginla had his helmet knocked off by Nolan Pratt, who was trying to prevent him from standing back up.
Play continued and the Lightning came out of the zone at 5:40 with a two-on-two chance for their best players, St. Louis and Lecavalier, but that rush fizzled at the blue line. Here's Gary Thorne's call on ABC: "Here come the two speedsters! Lecavalier, St. Louis -- out of gas."
It was back up ice and another 15 seconds later when Iginla curled out of the corner, took a pass and teed up his rocket of a slapshot. Lecavalier, exhausted, stood and watched from a few feet away, not even bothering to wave a stick in front of Iginla. Lecavalier's never going to make anyone forget Bob Gainey -- or even Jarome Iginla -- with his defense, but he does make an effort when he's not completely spent.
Iginla makes an effort even when he is. That's part of what makes him so great, aside from all that, you know, talent and stuff. And thanks to that amazing play, among many, he's one very-likely-to-happen win away from holding the Stanley Cup. Game 6 is Saturday in Calgary.
Get out there and score second, boys [PERMALINK]
You might have thought that the hero of Game 5 was Martin Gelinas of the Flames, who scored the first goal 2:13 in. Surely you've heard how important the first goal is. Hockey fans are bombarded with statistics showing that the team that scores first wins in the playoffs a vast majority of the time, usually something like 75 percent.
"First goal vital to playoff success," read a headline on a column last month on the NHL Web site. Writer John Kreiser showed that while the team that scores first in the last few regular seasons has won between 66 and 69 percent of the time, in the playoffs, where there are no ties, the figure rises to 73-77. TV announcers talk about this all the time and accompanying graphics back up the point. Coaches talk about it too.
The conclusion is obvious, right? That first goal is really important.
Horse feathers! shouts reader Scott Van Essen, who wrote me on this subject a few weeks ago and did not actually use that Marxist phrase. Van Essen, who calls himself "a pretty smart guy [with] two degrees in physics from a pretty tough school, with a really strong math background," calls this first-goal business "the most obnoxiously used meaningless statistic ever."
Aside to baseball fans in Southern California: This guy has clearly never listened closely to Ross Porter.
"It's presented as though scoring the first goal is somehow more important than scoring all of the other goals," Van Essen writes. "Now, I'll admit that there is a psychological advantage to being ahead, but I'm going to say it's pretty minimal. I'm pretty sure that at this stage in the playoffs, no team is going to crumble just because they suddenly find themselves down one-zip.
"In a game as low scoring as hockey, that first goal (or any goal) is representing one half or one third of your expected final score. So it's not that there's something mystical about scoring that first goal giving you an advantage, it's that scoring any goal is a huge chunk of your expected offensive output, which your opponent has not yet managed to put on the board. So yeah, you have a huge advantage over your opponent, but it's not because you scored first, it's because you scored at all, and your opponents haven't."
Van Essen also points out that the commentariat is mixing up cause and effect by putting so much emphasis on the first goal. "The team that scores first is likely to be the better team," he writes. "That doesn't mean that they're the better team because they scored first. It [likely] means they scored first because they're the better team."
He sums up the whole problem by calling it "nothing more than statisticians mining through piles of data, finding interesting correlations, and then presenting them as though they are causal relationships."
This all makes sense to me so I did a little mini-study to see if I could back up the logic with some numbers. I mined through the pile of data that is the 40 playoff games that the Lightning and Flames have combined to play, including the five in which they've played each other, and you'll never believe what I found.
The team that has scored the first goal of the game is 33-7, a winning percentage of .825, even better than the overall trend of the last few years. But get this: The team that scores the second goal of the game is 31-6. That's an .838 winning percentage! (There have been three 1-0 games.)
We're all looking at the wrong goal! Coaches are giving the wrong speech! They're saying, "Let's get out there and get that first one, boys," when they should be saying, "Let's get out there and score second!"
OK, OK, you caught me doing the same thing. But I think my little study backs up Van Essen's point. It's not the first goal that's so important, it's any goal. I'd wager that if you look at the record of the team that scores any goal, the third, fourth, whatever, you're going to find that it has a pretty lopsided winning record. (And conversely, the team that scores no goals has a really bad record.)
If anyone wants to undertake this study -- look at the records of the teams in all playoff games this year who have scored the first, second, third and so on goals -- I'll offer a year's subscription to Salon for the results. Talk to me before you start.
And as for you hockey teams, you should do what I've been saying for years: Get out there and score any goals!
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Reading recs for Smarty types [PERMALINK]
I have nothing to say about Smarty Jones except that I hope he wins the Triple Crown Saturday at Belmont Park. But in jumping on the Smarty bandwagon a few weeks ago I recommended a book about Triple Crown winners and admitted I have no idea if there are better books on the subject.
I still don't, but a host of readers responded by telling me about David Alexander, a legendary newspaper writer who wrote "A Sound of Horses," published in 1966. Laura Hillenbrand relied on his work for "Seabiscuit," and many readers talked about what a great storyteller Alexander was.
And here's a charming recommendation from reader Addy Litfin: "Being the daughter of the lead East Coast handicapper for the Daily Racing Form, I'd like to think I know a little more than the average gal. Having said that, I feel like it's my duty to pimp out both of my father's excellent books on the subject."
Those books are "Dave Litfin's Expert Handicapping: Winning Insights Into Betting Thoroughbreds" and Litfin's "Real-Life Handicapping: An Eclectic Horseplayer's Year at the Track." For all I know they're terrible, but if your grown daughter's willing to shill for you, you must be doing something right.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Lakers-Pistons prediction [PERMALINK]
Just to get 'er on record: Lakers in five.
Previous column: The NHL's betrayal of its fans
- - - - - - - - - - - -