You could say that the NHL got a kind of comeuppance when the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup Monday night.
With a lockout looming three months away and a long work stoppage almost a certainty, the trophy that means so much to Canadians and so little to Americans will belong not just to the States, but to that most un-icy of states, that Sunshine State, Florida. Forecast high in Tampa Tuesday: 89 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 32 degrees Celsius, for you Canadian readers.
It was a terrific, grinding game, the climax of the Calgary Flames' underdog charge to the Finals from the sixth seed in the Western Conference. The gritty Flames, almost always referred to as a "lunch-bucket team" in Canadian newspapers, carried the hopes of a nation to the doorstep, to within one win of bringing the Cup north of the border for the first time since 1993. But in the end they didn't have enough.
The checks weren't there, the jump was gone. Star Jarome Iginla couldn't get a shot for the second straight game. The Lightning's superior talent finally took over, and the Flames were forced to take penalties. Ruslan Fedotenko scored twice, and though a goal by Craig Conroy with 11:29 left made it interesting and led to a frantic finish, the Flames weren't able to get to overtime, where they would have had to hope for a break.
Brad Richards, with 12 goals and 14 assists in 23 games, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the entire playoff season. It could just as well have gone to goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who had a 1.71 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage, and who preserved the win with an astounding third-period save on a rebound shot by Jordan Leopold. Forty-year-old Dave Andreychuk, you may have heard, finally got to lift the Cup after spending a record 164 years in the league without winning it.
This business of the Stanley Cup belonging to Florida for the foreseeable future is a comeuppance to the NHL because it's a consequence of a policy that went a long way toward putting the league in its dire financial and labor straits: aggressive expansion. The NHL had 21 teams for more than a decade after the four World Hockey Association teams were absorbed in 1979, but starting in 1991 with the San Jose Sharks, it spent the next decade adding nine new teams.
Clubs used expansion fees from the new teams to finance bigger and bigger player contracts. But now that the league has expanded to 30 teams and can't reasonably get any larger, that revenue source has dried up, and the owners -- who must have been fairly astute businesspeople in the first place to be able to afford to buy an NHL franchise -- have discovered the esoteric economic principle that it's poor planning to heat your house by burning the furniture.
Six of the nine post-1990 teams are in the Sun Belt -- Ottawa, Minnesota and Columbus are the exceptions, and Minnesota was a replacement for a team that had moved to Dallas -- but since the NHL's march to the South failed to result in the hoped-for hockey boom in warmer climes, which would have justified the increased spending, the owners find themselves in what they call a financial crisis.
That's why they're adamant about the players accepting a hard salary cap, which the players union won't even negotiate about. And that's the impasse that nearly everyone close to the situation says will result in the 2004-05 season being at least delayed, if not canceled.
I didn't bother asking, but I'm sure league flacks would pooh-pooh the comeuppance idea and point to the full houses in Tampa and the throngs outside the arena cheering the Lightning on during their run to the championship. The Tampa Bay area has gone hockey mad, we're told.
One need only look at Raleigh, site of a recent Sun Belt Stanley Cup run, to see the flagging interest that awaits the Lightning's inevitable return to non-championship level -- that is, if the league starts up again and if Tampa Bay is a member when it does. I suspect that once the bounce from Anaheim's 2003 Finals run subsides next year, you'll be able to look there too.
Maybe because I grew up watching hockey in Los Angeles, I don't take offense at the sport being played in the land of iced tea and Easter-weekend pool parties. It doesn't bother me that a Florida team won the Stanley Cup. I don't feel that the hockey championship is somehow undeserved by residents of what will likely never be anything but a football town.
But judging by my in box, a lot of die-hard hockey fans feel that way, and that'll just give them one more reason to seethe at the NHL this fall as the days grow short and the arenas stay dark.
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Lightning ride all-important second goal to victory [PERMALINK]
While most fans understood the Lightning gained a huge advantage by scoring the first goal of the game, readers of this column were clued in to the even bigger advantage Tampa Bay gained by scoring second.
You'll recall that I made the stunning discovery that in games played by either the Lightning, the Flames or both this playoff year, the team that scored first had an .825 winning percentage through Game 5 of the Finals, but the team that scored second had an .838 mark. I invited bored readers to run the numbers for the entire playoffs, and two took me up on it.
Those two -- Chris Black and Nathan Whose Last Name Shall Be Unknown Because He Did the Work on Company Time -- confirmed the hypothesis: Teams that score the second goal of the game win more often than teams that score the first goal.
OK, the real hypothesis, courtesy of reader Scott Van Essen, was that the first goal was no more important than any other goal, that all goals are tremendously important in a sport where 3-2 is a high-scoring game.
Here are the records, updated through Game 7, for the entire playoffs, for the team that scored each goal in a game:
First goal: 70-19 (.787)
Second: 66-17 (.795)
Third: 60-18 (.769)
Fourth: 31-26 (.544)
Fifth: 29-13 (.690)
Sixth: 16-5 (.762)
Seventh: 8-6 (.571)
Eighth: 1-4 (.200)
Ninth: 3-0 (1.000)
So the lesson here is to try to avoid scoring that eighth goal, but if you can get to the ninth one, you're home free.
OK, that's not the lesson. The lesson is that those first three goals are all monstrously important, and subsequent goals begin to take on less significance as goals are scored, which makes sense -- that's why no particular basket in a basketball game carries so much weight, for example. As the number of goals climbs in our study, anomalies of sample size start to take over.
I'm not sure why that sixth goal comes off as so significant, with 16 of 21 teams scoring it getting the win. My first thought was that there must have been a bunch of games that were 3-2 before an empty-net goal turned it into 4-2. But in the entire playoff season there were only five 4-2 games, and only two had empty-netters. Removing them still leaves a .737 winning percentage for the team that scores sixth.
Meanwhile, USC basketball coach Henry Bibby, providing analysis of the NBA Finals for the Los Angeles Times, wrote Monday that he "always said that the team that scores first wins most of the time. I'm not sure if anybody has ever done research on that, but I've always been big on that."
Don't get me started!
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