The NHL really didn't deserve the fantastic finish it got this season, its comeback from a year off that climaxed a decade of bungling and mismanagement that turned hockey from the last of the four major North American sports to a regional niche entertainment.
But it got a great one, an exciting playoff year capped by that unmatchable sports event, a hockey Game 7. The Carolina Hurricanes staved off a historic collapse, beating the Edmonton Oilers 3-1 at home after having taken a 3-1 lead in the series, then dropping Games 5 and 6.
There just couldn't have been a better atmosphere in Raleigh, which is a little ironic because the capacity crowd, which stood throughout the game, wouldn't have ever gathered without the league's disastrous campaign of expansion and franchise transfer that flooded Sun Belt markets with new and moved teams while traditional Northern hockey hotbeds went begging.
The Hurricanes, formerly the Hartford Whalers, moved south in 1996, and their fans have gone bananas during two runs to the Stanley Cup Finals in the last four seasons that were played. The Hurricanes lost in the Finals to the Detroit Red Wings in 2002.
So life's a little complicated.
What wasn't complicated was the Hurricanes' effort Monday. They came out flying and never let up. They lost an overtime heartbreaker at home in Game 5, then were AWOL for Game 6 in Edmonton, but they got their mojo back Monday, hitting, pressuring, beating the Oilers to loose pucks and relying on rookie goalie Cam Ward, who was brilliant throughout the playoffs after taking over from the struggling Martin Gerber early in the postseason.
The Oilers never caved. Having parlayed an eighth -- and last -- seed into a Finals appearance, they'd rallied to win two elimination games, one on the road, when their power play started working again. But they were second best by a shade Monday, and a pivotal moment came with the Hurricanes shorthanded.
Late in the second period, with Carolina leading 2-0 and just starting a penalty kill, Aaron Ward sent the puck over the glass, a delay of game penalty. With 3:39 to go in the period, the Oilers had a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:55.
Edmonton won the faceoff and held the zone for a minute, then took a hideous penalty. Ryan Smyth, camped in front of the Carolina net, hooked Glen Wesley as he began to skate after a loose puck. Nothing like taking a lazy penalty 200 feet away from your own goal.
The Oilers still had a 4-on-3 power play for 55 seconds, but couldn't convert, Cam Ward making three nice saves. Five seconds later, Carolina went on the power play, though the Hurricanes also didn't score.
Fernando Pisani, Edmonton's playoff star, scored a little over a minute into the third period to set up the incredibly tense final minutes, the Oilers never able to solve Ward again, even after pulling goalie Jussi Markkanen in the last two minutes.
The Hurricanes, who missed out on a first-period goal when the officials didn't see the puck cross the line in a wild scramble, which replays later showed it had, survived to hoist the Stanley Cup in the most picturesque of sports celebrations this side of the Olympics.
The NHL didn't deserve such a great ending, and thanks to the poor decisions of the owners and commissioner Gary Bettman, far too many people didn't see Monday night's finish. But what a finish it was.
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World Cup hint: Scoring goals is important [PERMALINK]
After Ukraine scored in the fourth minute of its game against Saudi Arabia Monday, ESPN2 flashed a graphic saying that, to that point, teams that had scored first in this World Cup were 20-2-3.
Actually, teams that had scored first were 21-2-3. ESPN had forgotten to update its graphic to include the early game, Switzerland's 2-0 win over Togo.
Don't the ESPN people read this column? If they did, they'd know better, because we covered this subject two years ago in regard to hockey, whose fans were at the time being bombarded by "teams that scored first" stats. This column, aided by readers willing to do statistical research while on the clock at work, proved that scoring the second goal, not the first, was key to victory.
OK, that's not what we proved. But we did show that those "teams that score first" stats are junk, an example, as numerate reader Scott Van Essen put it, of "statisticians mining through piles of data, finding interesting correlations, and then presenting them as though they are causal relationships."
In other words, teams that score first often win not because they scored first but because they're better -- which often explains why they scored first.
Not always. Tunisia scored first on Spain later Monday, then lost 3-1, which looked about right. But often.
And not only that, but in a low-scoring environment such as hockey or soccer, scoring any goal is crucially important. When we ran the numbers during the 2004 NHL playoffs, we found that teams that had scored second had a better record than teams that had scored first.
Hockey coaches around the world have since taken up the rallying cry "Get out there and score second, boys!"
Scoring is way more scarce in soccer than hockey. While NHL teams combined to score an average of 5.65 goals per game in this year's playoffs, the 32 World Cup games so far have yielded an average of 2.34 goals. That's both teams combined. Twenty-two of the 32 games played so far have been either shutout wins or scoreless ties.
So about two-thirds of the time, if you score the first goal, you've already done enough to win. Of course the team that scores first wins a lot.
But a look at those 32 games shows that -- well, lookee here! World Cup standings don't use winning percentages, but we will for easy comparison, and through Monday's games, teams that have scored the second goal have a better winning percentage than teams that have scored the first.
Well, sort of. They do if we count a tie as half a win, which is how you'd count them in most situations. If we did that, teams that have scored the first goal would have a winning percentage of .839 and teams that have scored the second would have a winning percentage of .840. A clear case that scoring second is better!
But the World Cup standings count a tie as one-third of a win, which we'll do too as we present the records of the teams that have scored each goal of a game, through Monday:
1st goal: 22-3-3, .821
2nd goal: 17-2-3, .818
3rd goal: 10-2-1, .795
4th goal: 7-0-1, .917
5th goal: 1-1-0, .500
6th goal: 2-0-0, 1.000
Note that there have been four scoreless ties.
So the clear message here is to try to score the fourth or sixth goal. Do that and you're home free, though if you make the mistake of scoring the fifth goal, you've turned the game into a coin flip.
Wait, that's not the message.
The message is that every goal is vitally important, remember? Here's another way to look at it: Winning teams have scored 59 goals, losing teams eight. An additional eight goals have been scored in tie games. If you score, at all, you're probably going to win.
The message is that in soccer, if you want to win, a good strategy is to try to score a goal. You can't get this kind of analysis just anywhere.
But the message for ESPN is that it's showing the wrong graphic.
If a goal is scored and ESPN flashes a graphic saying, "Teams that have scored first are 22-3-3," I, the typical American sports fan who doesn't care about soccer, will think, "Well, there's about a four-in-five chance that this baby's over. I believe I will turn off the TV, kick my dog, curse some foreigners and play with my assault rifle."
But if that graphic said, "Teams that have scored second are 17-2-3," I'm going to want to stick around to see which team can come up with that all-important tally. Better for me, better for ESPN and way better for the dog.
Tuesday's matches include one featuring my new favorite team, the plucky 11 from tiny Trinidad and Tobago, which held Sweden to a scoreless tie and then gave England all it wanted in a 2-0 loss. The Soca Warriors, still with a chance to advance to the next round, play Paraguay at 3 p.m. EDT.
C'mon, boys. Get out there and score second!
Previous column: Mavericks hopping mad
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