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On 'experience,' Game 7s, human frailties

If Alzner plays, he'll make his NHL playoff debut on one of sport's most pressure-packed stages. The veteran he's stepping in for, meantime, has 51 postseason contests on his résumé.

>>Tarik El-Bashir, WaPo

So many great scenarios for tonight's Capitals-Canadiens Game 7, including veteran Tom Poti having to be replaced by a rookie. (A good rookie who's been groomed for two years, but still...he was in Hershey two nights ago.)

I heard a radio interview yesterday with Mike Johnson, the recently retired NHLer who does studio work on NHL On the Fly. The question of "experience" was brought up as it relates to performance in Game 7, the ultimate must-win scenario in the NHL.

Most of us buy into this idea ("experience matters") to varying degrees, but of course it's one of those unquantifiable attributes that can be misconstrued by bad reporting and mitigated by good goaltending, bad luck, and the ol' "too young/innocent to know any better" phenomenon. So Johnson's thoughts on the topic were interesting, coming from a good athlete who has clearly thought a bit about what makes performers like him tick.

To paraphrase, the vet of 661 NHL games (22 playoffs) said experience helps in the sense that there are so many pressures, adrenaline-inducers (my clumsy word, that) and other stimuli when you're going through an intense situation for the first time, you simply don't know how your body will react. So if you do know how your body responds in such instances, you're better prepared for it and, if necessary, better able correct things you didn't like last time.

In other words, though he didn't put it this way and though we often forget this:

Elite athletes are in fact physiological beings whose actions are initiated by human brains. They're imperfect even at doing what they do best, what they've done hundreds of times before. They're human. They sting, they bleed, they get scared, they get surprised, they screw up, they get thrown off by calls from Mom, they bottle moments of career-defining greatness, they have "ice running through" their veins -- sometimes all in the same night, in the same person.

You only need to have watched Alex Ovechkin have a bad playoff game in any given year to understand that even the greatest performers can disappoint themselves -- with no explanation why they didn't achieve what they fully expected to achieve when they laced up that night. Sometimes that disappointment is due to this game being played by 19 guys a side; sometimes it's due to something that individual failed to do.


Experience is Nice, Being Good is Better

Of course, experience only helps if you're good. I was thinking of Johnson's description last night during the Coyotes-Red Wings Game 7, because Phoenix looked so frail, so unassertive. They survived the Wings' first-period barrage thanks to Ilya, but they were on the ropes. The Wings were both experienced and good, the Coyotes were much less of either. For Phoenix, here's a team that managed to push the Wings to seven games, but in the winner-takes-all game, they faced the double-whammy: They looked like they'd forgotten what they'd done to get there (of course two memorable PP performances helped them get there), while the Wings had rediscovered their "on" switch.

Ironically, on that pivotal 5-on-3 at the end of the second period, it was two "experienced" veterans on the Coyotes blueline who didn't have an answer for the Red Wings' 3-on-5 collapsing defense. The Wings dared Mathieu Schneider and Derek Morris to make the perfect shot through three Wings defenders and a goalie, and all Schneider and Morris could do was fire wide (fine-tuning too much?) or fire into another shot block. The Coyotes forwards down low did not even appear prepared to provide their defensemen with an alternative to this blast-away-and-hope strategy. The experienced Wings played the odds and won.

Stuff like "playoff experience" can sound like a reporter's cliche, a reach for a narrative. But that's how humans process what they see before them. In trying to suss out which players are reliably good and which aren't, "advanced" or "micro" stats have come a long way, particularly in the aggregate view, over the proverbial large sample of a full season or three.

But in predicting single game results for a whole team, they're not so hot.

Because even when the numbers "predict" one thing (to be fair, they don't "predict," but rather deliver odds), so many times actual results yield something else. It's "why they play the game," to use another cliche. And when results don't conform to the numbers, we go back to trying to explain another way. We go back to the narrative; the version that acknowledges these athletes -- and coaches -- are humans, not automotons described on a spreadsheet. In any single game, human foibles are at work.

But in any single elimination game 7, you'd generally expect the incentive to provide a clarity of human focus so that the better team wins. The narrative would say that's what happened in Phoenix last night.


Being Good is Nice, Being Human is Cruel

So the Capitals "should" win tonight and probably will. Like Detroit against Phoenix, they should be able to deploy all hands on deck when it matters most. But if they don't, it won't be the season-long numbers that tell us why. it will be the vagaries of human performance, which can range to Jaroslav Halak standing on his head to a rookie coughing the puck up at a pivotal moment.

In some ways, the Capitals of the last two seasons remind me of the 1993 Penguins (aside from the fact the Capitals haven't accomplished anything in the playoffs yet): That two-time defending champion famously failed to knock off the Pierre Turgeon-less Islanders in seven games. But even in Game 7, with their back against the wall, that Penguins team "flipped the switch" and erased a 3-1 deficit in the last four minutes to force OT. The team with such swagger could turn it on when it chose, and it did so again. At the last moment, they'd survived. Except then Ray Ferarro to David Volek happened, and that was that. A Penguins dynasty in the making was stopped, never to be resumed.

I'm fully expecting "good" to win out over "human" tonight in Washington. But since there's always the chance things don't turn out that way, that humans will show up to change the script, you bet I'll be tuning in.