About three weeks ago, the Washington Capitals fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Capitals then trailed 3-1 in the series.
A friend of mine texted me, a Capitals fan, a few minutes after game’s end. It was probably to talk me off the ledge, but he also asked what the Capitals needed to do to come back in the series.
“Flip a coin three times,” I said. “Hope I land three straight heads.”
Assuredly, I was making some sort of crass generalization. There’s no way possible that years, even decades, of work can be shortened down into a what amounts to a simple flip of a coin. It’s too arbitrary.
But let’s look at numbers first. Just 28 times in NHL history (we’ll use hockey as an example) has a team come back from down 3-0 or 3-1 in a series.
Teams have fallen down 3-1 exactly 291 times in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Of those 291 series, the trailing teams have come back to win 28 times, a comeback percentage of 9.62 percent.
When flipping a coin, you have a 12.5 percent chance of having it land with the same side up three times in a row. That's what games are, in essence — coin flips.
Now, there are more variables in sports than I’m giving credit for: momentum, injuries, referees, Gary eating a hotdog in section 116. Those things cannot be quantified.
But even when you look at the NBA, seemingly the most level of all the sports, the numbers are surprising. In 10 of the last 24 seasons, the team with the best record has emerged with a title. In the NHL, it’s about to be five of 24. The MLB, five of 22. In the NFL, it’s four of 26.
The NBA, often criticized for being too boring and too predictable, even has the “best” team exit the playoffs as losers more often than not. You can build your perfect team with young and talented players — only to see it blown to hell by a team that’s objectively worse.
In the book Moneyball, there is a discussion between Billy Beane, an MLB general manager, and his staff about the analytics revolution in baseball. In one part of the book, they bring up the Kansas City Royals, that year’s worst team in baseball.
The Royals, if put in that year’s MLB playoffs, still had close to a 10 percent chance to win the World Series. A 10 percent chance for a team that won 65 games.
That’s neither wrong nor applicable to just one sport.
If you watched the Penguins play the Senators over the last two weeks, you only needed a single brain cell and a functioning set of eyes to figure out which team was the defending champs and which team was clinging to a higher-than-normal shooting and save percentage.
In other words, luck.
Yet there the Senators stood. They hung on with every ounce of dear life, standing in front of the net as the Pittsburgh shooters pelted the Ottawa crease with shots that looked like they'd murder Senators goalie Craig Anderson. It lasted until the second overtime of Game 7, when the dam finally broke.
The Senators' coin landed tails up.
It would be easy to say the Senators had the grittiness to hang on. They had the “winner’s mentality.” They had the right “leadership.”
In other words, they were the worse team that rode luck until it threw them off at the most painful second.
This happens too much in sports, where too much value is placed on non-quantifiable stats. Maybe it’s for our own sanity, maybe it’s for narrative sake, who knows. But whenever you shorten down a 162, or 82, or especially 16, game season, there’s an element of randomness that will take over the sport like never before.
When you sit down to watch the Cavaliers play the Warriors, or the Predators face
Evil the Penguins, the teams are certainly good, even great. But there is an element of luck, a large part in fact, that has usually taken over by this point.
Three straight finals between the same teams isn't just absurd — it's unheard of. Maybe that's luck, too. Even when Jordan's Bulls were dominating the NBA and won six titles in eight years, they played five different teams in the Finals. The Bulls, those Bulls, only had the best record three times in those six years.
There’s not a fix for this, either. All fans, and team management, can really do is hope the lucky penny they pulled out of their back pocket comes up heads four times when the regular season ends.
“My s--- doesn’t work in the playoffs,” Beane continues in Moneyball. “My job is to get us to the playoffs. Whatever happens after that is f---ing luck.”