On composure, momentum and crafting a narrative around playoff hockey

Regardless of what the narrative about Cooke might be these days, this is always good to see.

Hockey writing comes in a lot of flavors. On this site alone we have a wide range of writers, from my coldly analytical pieces to Ben's fun-loving and emotional riffs. Yet across this spectrum, all writing needs an angle, a thesis, a raison d'etre.

A narrative, if you will.

Narrative has become a dirty word in some circles, but not because narrative is inherently bad. Even in my most dense statistical recitations, I am still trying to tell a story, to communicate the narrative that the numbers suggest to me. I admire writers like Ellen Etchingham of Backhand Shelf who tell the story more beautifully than I ever could. The complaint is not with narrative in general; the objection is to easy narrative, forcing the subject of the story into traditional storylines that are often not a good fit for the present case or provide little insight.

As one example, let us consider the notion of composure. We'd probably all agree that the Penguins lost their composure in Game 3. And we'd probably all agree that at times teams lose games because of a lack of composure. And yet I would argue strongly that composure was not the reason the Penguins lost this particular game.

I'll reserve the detailed breakdown for the end of this article so as not to interrupt the flow of my narrative, but going through the various scrums and looking at what followed them, I am hard-pressed to say that they hurt the Penguins. While the game was still in doubt (i.e. excluding the fights that broke out with the score 7-4 and under five minutes left), the various fighting and roughing and crosschecking penalties that Pittsburgh took resulted in two goals for each team. The Penguins carried play after a scrum more often than not, and it would be just as reasonable to argue that the skirmishes energized Pittsburgh as it is to say that the team lost its focus.

However, "the team lost because they lost their composure" is a popular narrative, an easy thing for the writer to describe and the reader to imagine. So I was not surprised to see several writers falling into this trap, describing a cause-and-effect relationship that the facts do not clearly support.

Here's some of what was written:

The Philadelphia Flyers took full advantage of the Pens' total and complete lack of composure in an 8-4 shellacking. [...] Ugly, selfish outbursts ended up costing [Bylsma's] club Sunday.

To a man, the Penguins say the fact that they're trailing 3-0 [...] has nothing to do with their effort or character. They aren't saying the same thing about their composure.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, though, they lost their composure early on and attempted to draw the Flyers into physical game that didn’t play to their strengths.

It isn't easy to recap every game and come up with something that is fresh, insightful, and accurate every time. In a game where the overwhelming feeling afterwards was that the Penguins had lost their collective mind, I'm not surprised that some people connected that to the result of the game. I don't intend this as a criticism of any specific writers, but as an unfortunately common example of how the use of stock narratives can be dangerous.

This is often cast as a blog-versus-mainstream issue. That pressure to write something unique every day falls particularly hard on the print media, and the easy narrative about easy narrative is that they are the ones who promote the tired storylines. However, in this particular instance that doesn't appear to be the case -- writers for mainstream publications definitely observed and wrote about the Penguins' lack of composure, but generally they did not imply that it cost the Penguins the game.

The point here is that everyone falls into this trap sometimes, and everyone is capable of avoiding it. But the writers that I come back to most often are the ones who are most precise and careful with their storylines, and I encourage everyone -- including my fellow writers on this site -- to challenge their narratives and make sure that what they write fits the facts.

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Being accurate is important, but the best articles do more than that; they help the reader understand what happened and why. One narrative that is particularly popular this time of year but adds very little value to a piece is the flow of momentum.

An extraordinary fraction of the analysis of a game focuses on who has the momentum and what the other team might need to do to get the momentum back. The implication seems to be that if your team has carried the play in the last couple of minutes, then they will continue to do so in the next couple of minutes unless something happens that goes the other way.

"Team A is outplaying Team B, and will probably continue to do so until Team B does something good." Where is the value in that? Why do so many people focus on this in their analysis?

I understand the perception that a team can be energized by a great play, but adrenaline rushes don't last more than a few seconds; I find it hard to believe that momentum really matters over the sort of multishift time spans that people apply it to. If anything, score effects suggest that the opposite would prove true under rigorous analysis -- we know that the team that is trailing tends to carry the play, even though one would presume that the team that is leading has done more to build momentum.

The Flyers have trailed early on in almost every game this year, yet finished with 103 points. Presumably they have consistently overcome whatever momentum the opposition has at the start of the game, but the people who cover the team still return to this narrative. As an example of both how prevalent and how useless the discussion of momentum is, I bring us back to game two.

After an overtime win in Game 1, much of the talk leading up to game two centered around a discussion about whether the Flyers' momentum would carry over. It didn't; the Penguins jumped out to a quick lead again.

We called out Bryzgalov's amazing glove save on Letang as shifting momentum, apparently causing Crosby to let the puck roll off his stick, overskate the ensuing play, and fail to pick up either the loose puck or the free man as Talbot put in an easy rebound. The Flyers rode the resulting momentum wave to get outshot 6-4 over the next seven minutes, until the Penguins scored to crush the momentum that the Flyers got from Talbot's goal.

Fortunately, the momentum the Penguins got did not give them much of a boost; they soon took a penalty that gave the Flyers a chance to get the momentum back and the Flyers capitalized with a goal to make it 3-2. Then the Flyers took a penalty and scored another shorthanded goal to tie it, which normally would be just about the biggest momentum boost you could get. Unfortunately, for some reason this one didn't give them any momentum, just some good vibrations; it would seem that good vibrations aren't as helpful as momentum, as the Penguins retook the lead six seconds later.

At what point do we acknowledge that perhaps momentum isn't a predictive factor? How many times do we have to see the pendulum swing back the other way before we recognize that momentum isn't the only thing determining which way it goes?

If one team is carrying the play, just say so. There's no need to imply that this gives them an inertial tendency to continue to carry the play, and it just seems insane to try to identify specific plays that can overcome the inertia and send the play back the other way.

Composure and momentum are two examples of tried-and-true narratives. There are undoubtedly times where such views of the game are relevant, or even essential to understanding the action. Unfortunately, there are also many times where these traditional narratives are easy and convenient but not particularly accurate or insightful. My hope is that we can all seek to avoid their lure and make sure that our analysis aids the reader in understanding the game.

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Appendix: A look at the various events from Game 3 that might be considered evidence of a lack of composure.

  • First period, Engelland retaliates on Rinaldo and both get roughing penalties. The ensuing 4-on-4 results in a goal for Pittsburgh.
  • First period, scrum after Talbot's goal. Niskanen wisely draped himself on Talbot to prevent him from getting a decent shot and it was Giroux who reacted in frustration; I don't think Pittsburgh should have gotten the extra penalty there, but if they did it wasn't from a loss of composure.
  • First period, Letang crosschecks Couturier. The ensuing 5-on-3 results in a goal for Philadelphia.
  • First period, Crosby's pokes at Bryzgalov's glove initiate a melee that ends with the ejection of Letang and Timonen. Letang is arguably better than Timonen, but when your team is trailing by two goals, removing the top defenseman on each team and opening up scoring chances both ways probably works in your favor. Add in the Pittsburgh power play that came out of this altercation and I think this is at least a net neutral and probably helped Pittsburgh on balance.
  • First period, Asham crosschecks Schenn. The ensuing 4-on-4 results in a goal for each team, and no goals are scored during the subsequent Flyers power play.
  • Third period, Neal's charging penalty produces another melee. The Penguins were already down by three goals with under five minutes left; the game was all but decided and the ensuing Flyers goal did little to change that.

So on balance, Pittsburgh's loss of composure resulted in two goals for each team while the game was still competitive. Philadelphia had an unproductive power play that could arguably be ascribed to Penguin frustration. And one play resulted in a Penguins power play and the ejection of Letang and Timonen. Overall, this seems pretty close to neutral; it certainly isn't the reason the Penguins were down by three goals with a few minutes left.

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