Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winning the Games They're Supposed to Win

Tony Gallagher wrote an article after the Canucks downed the Maple Leafs 4-1 on Saturday criticizing the effort from the Canucks and wondering how much longer they could play lackadaisical hockey and expect to win. He came just short of accusing the Canucks of playing with the Maple Leafs like a cat with a mouse. There's an inherent expectation in Gallagher's article that the Canucks need to build proper habits now in the regular season so that the habits are properly ingrained come playoff time. Never mind that it's only December, the Canucks should be playing with playoff intensity now.

I'm used to hearing the opposite from Canucks fans and media. I'm used to hearing after every loss to a supposed "inferior" team, The Canucks should be able to beat these guys! or These are the games you have to win! and my favorite Good teams don't lose to bad teams!

The fact is that good teams do lose to bad teams: even the worst team in the league wins a few games and by definition that means they beat "superior" teams. But the complaint has been especially acute amongst Canucks fans. The theory is that the Canucks continually play down to their opponent's level and lose games they should win. Witness the 2005-06 Canucks, who lost all 4 of their meetings with the last-place St. Louis Blues, finishing 3 points out of a playoff spot. Their inability to beat the worst team in the league became the story of that season.

I've even heard the complaint in reference to last season, as some of my more cynical friends pointed to 2 losses against the Edmonton Oilers, the team that finished 12 points behind Toronto for last in the NHL. So is this the case? Did the Canucks play worse against lesser opponents, squandering points that might have put them in a better position in the playoffs?

The Canucks finished the 2009-10 season with a 49-28-5 record, for 103 points out of a possible 164. That gives them a point percentage of 0.628. This tied them for 5th in the NHL behind Washington, San Jose, Chicago, and Phoenix. Their record against teams that missed the playoffs was 25-15-1, for 51 points out of a possible 82. Their point percentage against teams that missed the playoffs was 0.622. Their point percentage against teams that made the playoffs was 0.634.

While not a major difference, it is true that the Canucks had a worse point percentage against teams that missed the playoffs when, by all rights, they should have a better point percentage against such teams. So it's true that the Canucks may have played down to their opponent's level last season. A few more wins against the lesser lights of the NHL would have put them within striking range of 2nd or 1st in the Conference, meaning a better playoff seeding and the possibility of not meeting the Blackhawks in the second round.

So what is happening this season? Are the Canucks continuing the pattern? Will the "game-playing," as Gallagher puts it, hurt the Canucks down the road, perhaps preventing them from a higher finish?

The answer, thus far, is no. As of today, the Canucks have a record of 19-8-4, collecting 42 out of a possible 62 points, a percentage of 0.677. Their percentage against teams who are currently sitting under the playoff bar is 0.737 and against teams currently in the playoffs, 0.583. The Canucks are beating the teams they should beat, even if it isn't with the style, panache, or intensity that Gallagher would like to see. Instead, the Canucks have been calm, collected, and zen-like in their approach to such games, efficiently getting the job done. It's actually been enjoyable to see the Canucks win such games without the intensity that has seemed so necessary in the past. Indeed, it seems that these games that the fanbase feels should be easy victories have been, well, easy.

More concerning is their point percentage against the rest of the NHL, which sits well below last season's excellent pace. Tonight's battle against the Red Wings for second place in the Conference will be a good test of their mettle, as will games at the end of the month against the Conference-leading Flyers and Stars. In-between, I expect they will bring their miniature rakes to work against the Blue Jackets and Oilers, coolly and calmly winning the games they're supposed to win.


  1. "Their record against teams that missed the playoffs was 25-25-1, for 51 points out of a possible 82."

    By my count that would be out of a possible 102, no?

    This complaint always annoys me because: (i) it is a circular argument (the teams who are better/worse than yours are determined in part by playing those games and seeing what happens); and (ii) the same people complain when they get beaten by teams above them in ths standings, because that means the Canucks are "not elite" or some such. (Remember there is no such thing as aggregates or luck -- extreme conclusions can be drawn after every game depending entirely on the final score, even if it's a shootout, and not the gameplay itself).

    And the thing is, the Canucks have to lose a bunch of games this season, because everyone does. No team comes close to a 1.000 winning percentage. So between losing to non-playoff teams and losing to teams in direct competition for playoff positioning, I think it's a pretty easy choice! I'd much prefer the Canucks "play down to their [lesser] opponents" if it comes alongside beating teams they might face in the playoffs (or who might edge them out of a more favorable playoff position).

    If the Canucks could actually meet fan expectations against both playoff and non-playoff teams, they would be unqualifiedly the best team in pro sports history. (Kind of like how if every player had the amount of points that fans "expect", or avoided scoring droughts, the rule of 60-minutes-and-one-puck means that they'd be the highest scoring team in the NHL by a country mile).

  2. That should read "25-15-1" and I have made the correction.

    I agree with you, actually. I would much rather have the Canucks beat fellow playoff teams, but at the same time, the truly elite teams that finish at the top of the conference tend to beat both playoff teams and non-playoff teams! Yes, the Canucks will lose some games, but I understand the frustration when those losses come against teams that are not as good as the Canucks.

    Yes, the worst team in the league is going to win some games, but do they have to be against my team? As much as I try to be objective and reasonable, I'm still a fan at heart and I hate to see my team lose.

  3. “still a fan”
    of the ultimate also ran
    “at heart”?
    try your head instead!
    “i hate to see my team lose”?
    another team choose!

    you know
    like chicago

    who win when it’s needed
    no matter where seeded!


  4. No matter where seeded, eh? Such as 9th currently? I believe the 9th seed in the Western Conference does not get home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

  5. “currently” ninth

    three points behind
    you’ve four games in hand
    and reason to gloat
    and be unkind.
    i understand
    have taken note,

    but i must remind
    and reprimand
    the fact that you dote
    on losers defined
    by playoffs past and
    patrick kane’s quote:

    people should “be themselves and not be pretenders.”

    have the grace to accept
    the ultimately inept.

    chicken hawk


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