Luck Is Hockey's "Bullshit Dump"

That up there is Bruce Bennett's photo for Getty, zoomed in to unsustainable resolution, but still clearly showing the millimeters of shaved ice that brought the loose, potentially game-tying puck to a halt with 1:11 left. The notoriously shitty surface at MSG tends to increasingly make itself known as the weather outside gets more humid, but in this series, it'll be chalked up to the L-word.

"Puck luck," as Henrik Lundqvist called it after Game 3, in the context of noting his Rangers hadn't gotten much of it. Or, in a formulation that's more traditional but also suggests that there's some agency in chaos, Alain Vigneault invoked divine intervention. "Sometimes the hockey gods are there," Vigneault said. "They were there tonight."

This is an easy series to throw up your hands and just fall back on the caprice of random bounces. The Rangers, losers of the first three despite being the better team for long stretches of each, have been done in by very tangible weirdness—by deflections, caroms, broken sticks, all seeming to go the Kings' way. Last night was more of the same in the other direction, most notably two goal-line saves, from Anton Stralman and Derek Stepan, that each preserved a one-goal lead.

(The view from the net cam on Stepan's glove save is particularly good for the audio. You see L.A.'s Tanner Pearson insisting that what Stepan did was illegal, and then hear referee Wes McCauley, offscreen, firmly explaining why it was fair play. By contrast, in the net cam video for Stralman's goal-line stop of Alec Martinez earlier in the game, the only decipherable audio is someone yelling "fuck.")

You tend to notice luck more in a short series, where it doesn't have the time to even out. You notice it in this series especially, since all the "game of inches" moments are occurring where everybody can see them—fluke paddle saves and pucks coming up just short, rather than the usual insensible moments of truth like, say, striking the puck a millimeter high and sending it into a goalie's leg pads instead of high side.

But more than anything else, this final is coming in the middle of a sea change of how we evaluate hockey. The first fruits of the statistical revolution have flowered, and the upshot is that you can't talk intelligently about hockey anymore without talking about possession. The result tends toward the simplistic: usually some variation on win the fenwick battle and you were the better team, which is true more often than not, but any attempt to explain 60 minutes' worth of interconnected action by counting discrete events is necessarily incomplete.

What's left, until we figure out more holistic way of watching the game, is "luck"—that ghost in the machine, the god of the gaps, a catch-all term for the highly visible, high-leverage discrete events that we can't yet grasp. (We have tried. Witness the debate over PDO's usefulness, or what it even is.)

The current acceptance of hockey analysis is roughly at the level baseball's was 15 years ago, so this is not a new problem. It's one Bill James confronted, and memorably named, way back in 2001:

All discussions have bullshit dumps; we need them. Our logic, whatever it is that we are talking about, can never be completely worked out; all subjects worthy of discussion are too complicated to be fully encased in logic. Thus, in all discussions, the least precise areas become bullshit dumps, elements of the discussion which are used to reconcile our formal logic to our intuitive sense of right or wrong, justice or injustice, accuracy or inaccuracy, reason or madness, moderation or extremity.

"Luck" is hockey's bullshit dump. It's the taxonomy of our inadequacies. Luck is really just a word for causal determinism on a level too micro for us to measure. A puck bounces a certain way or a player loses an edge in a crucial moment because of high-level collision physics, not because of true randomness. But we can't see it, we can't count it, we can't even philosophically come to terms with the fact that something so weird and unexpected as a puck coming to rest in "a little miniature snow fort" is simple cause and effect, and quite literally had to happen.

So, luck. The necessary waste product of quantifying the sport, the statistical remainder once you've balanced everything else. In its own way, luck has become just as much a narrative crutch as its largely discarded predecessors like momentum, intangibles, and the hockey gods. It's a stronger narrative tool, because it implicitly acknowledges our current limits of understanding, but it's overused nonetheless and doesn't actually explain anything.

Many fans and most media are now too smart to ascribe meaning to the macroweirdness that's especially prevalent in this series, even if it means accepting the underlying truth of that xkcd comic. So here we have a Stanley Cup final taking place in a kind of narrative twilight zone that deals in probabilities and alternate outcomes. There's really nothing to say except to parrot the best piece of analysis thus far, the one delivered by the unknown soul in that net cam video. Fuck.