By Stu Hackel
A guy I know was asked every year, year after year, to predict which team would win the Stanley Cup. He always answered, "The Rangers." This went on for decades. The thing was, he hated the Rangers and I think he did it because by picking them, he figured he'd jinx them and they'd never win. Finally, in 1994, the Rangers won the old mug and he was right. Even though he'd been wrong annually for a few decades up until then, he went around crowing, "I told you so!" He fancied himself as The Great Predictor.
This is the time of year when many in the media are asked to peer sagely into the future, stroke their whiskered chins and tell the world who they think will win a series or a conference or even the Stanley Cup. SI.com even had a brave tradition of asking its writers to compile the entire bracket, NCAA basketball style, and forecast who would advance round by round, and which two teams would be shaking hands at the end of the Cup final, which one would skate off and which one would get the big silver chalice from Gary Bettman.
I don't get it. I mean, I do get it, because when someone thinks you are some kind of expert, they want to know who you think is going to win. The thing is this: All you need to do is watch one year of playoffs to know how completely unpredictable Stanley Cup hockey is. The real expert is the guy who knows it is all unknowable.
A goalie on an eighth-seed team gets hot, and all of a sudden, a top seed can be booking tee times in April. A top scorer gets injured and suddenly a potent offense is easier to defend and a good team gets eliminated. A shutdown defenseman gets a penalty at a crucial time, a power play goal gets scored and the whole complexion of a series changes. These kind of things make predictions a totally fruitless endeavor.
Have you heard of TSN's Maggie the Monkey? A few years back, TSN had a trained crab-eating Macaque from the Bowmanville Zoo that had been trained to spin a wheel pick the series winners.
In 2003, Maggie went 8-7 in series predictions, which was one behind the best of TSN's human panelists, equal to two others and better than one. The next year, Maggie went 7-8, losing to three panelists, tying two, and defeating one. In 2006, she finished first, going 9-6 and out-predicting Bob McKenzie, Pierre McGuire and Bill Berg. She retired after the '09 playoffs with a career mark of 45-45. That says all you need to know about predicting the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Does anyone actually check later to see if all these human predictions on websites and newspapers were right? My pal Billy Altman, who's a great baseball and music writer and a big hockey fan, told me, "No one remembers these predictions anyway." Maybe not. So then why bother doing them?
Let's face it: A big part of what makes them so much fun is you can't predict what's going to take place. That's why it's the best championship tournament in sports. It's the hardest to win because you have to get through four seven-game series, each one more competitive than the one before and there's the added element of the great unknown.
You think you know how good a team is? They fill the net with goals during the regular season? Then suddenly the playoffs roll around, they can't score and they're gone. You can't know. You just can't know.
That's why they call it "The Second Season." You wipe the slate clean. It's a fresh start for all 16 clubs. The clocks are reset to zero. Everything you've done in the prior 82 games goes out the window. When I was writing the posts on things to look for in the first round in the Eastern Conference and the Western, I kept writing about trends and performances during the regular season and I started to think, "This is moronic. None of this matters once the puck drops on Wednesday." Even just trying to determine how a series might unfold based on the regular season is a very risky enterprise.
The best you can hope for as a fan is that the habits your team forged from October until mid-April serve them well once the playoffs start, and the talents that individual players have shown don't desert them when the games mean the most and the opposition grows more fierce.
Because this is what happens: That 35-goal scorer suddenly can't find the net and the guy who had six goals during the season gets 10 in the first two rounds and three game-winners. Predict that.
How can you predict with any certainty the way a rookie goalie will play when every shot takes on greater significance? Where are the guidelines to follow that will reveal how a team will emotionally react after going 0-for-8 on the power play and losing by a goal? When a key player blocks a shot and breaks his foot and is lost for the playoffs and the coach says "Everyone will just have to step up," will his players really be able to do that? Will a team that has accumulated too many injuries just run out of gas or soldier on and prevail?
There will be missed chances and missed calls and cheapshots and headshots and lucky bounces and bad bounces and suspensions and most likely something we've never seen before, and what you thought was a sure thing evaporates. You know these things are going to occur. But you don't know which team they will happen to or when they will happen.
It's always been that way and anyone who has watched Stanley Cup hockey knows that and should just recognize the futility of trying to predict an outcome in a best four-of-seven series. Toe Blake knew that. He won two Stanley Cups as a player, eight more as a coach and was an adviser to the Canadiens for another eight after that. Not too many people understood Stanley Cup hockey better than Toe Blake. And what did he say?
"Predictions are for gypsies."
Works for me, Toe.