Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Empty Nets and Admiral Ackbar

This has been floating around in my head for the last week, and finally there's some time to talk about it... last Tuesday, while we were busy sleepwalking through the one and only Union home game of the season, Seth Appert decided to pull Bryce Merriam from the net with about eight minutes left to play, trying to light a fire  that could get the team back into the game while they were down 4-1 with practically zero offensive opportunities.

Directly behind me, there was an immediate reaction. "What the hell are you doing, Appert?" a fan shouted. "This is (expletive)!"

I just about buried my head in my hands, but I'd had about enough - given that there has been actual commentary on the Internet lately as to whether lifting the goaltender is really a good idea for RPI, given the number of empty netters that the Engineers have given up this season... a number that reached 8 (more than the last two seasons combined - 5) when Daniel Carr hit the net from behind the red line, sending the Union fans in attendance into a celebration that seemed more apt for an overtime win than an empty netter with three minutes left in a game in which they were up by three and dominating.

I turned around and shouted back. "What the hell is he supposed to do? Nothing else is working. Who cares if we allow an empty netter, what's the big deal?"

Quite frankly, it's not a big deal. Empty net goals are almost never worth getting excited over, and the practice of pulling the goaltender for an extra skater when you're down late - earlier if you're down more - is done by precisely everyone. It's standard operating procedure. The football equivalent is going for it on fourth down. The exception that proves the rule is probably the Soviet Union in 1980. They didn't pull Vladimir Myshkin when they trailed the Americans late in the Miracle on Ice game, but that team was so strong and powerful that they'd never really been in a situation where they were down late before. They never practiced or planned for playing with an extra attacker.

Here's the illustration of the point on why empty net goals are meaningless. RPI was losing 2-1 to Colorado College in the first game the teams played this year. CC scored two empty netters and 4-1 was the final. What is the difference? There isn't one, really. RPI was losing before and still lost. RPI was losing 2-0 to St. Lawrence up in Canton a week later. RPI pulled the goaltender, and didn't allow the empty netter. What was the difference? None. RPI still lost - and they were losing before they pulled the goalie, too.

Now think back to last year's Black Friday... or Saturday or whenever it was. RPI on the power play. Down 3-2. Allen York gets pulled - he's out of the net for almost two full minutes of gameplay. Marty O'Grady scores with 0.2 seconds left on the clock, and RPI wins in OT. What happened there? A game the Engineers were losing turned into a tie, then a victory.

Bottom line, empty net goals are given up when the team is losing anyway and is going all out to either get back in the game or tie it, depending on how far down they are.

But, you say, what about tiebreakers?

Well, what about them? Here they are in ECAC play.

1. Comparison of game results between tied teams (head to head). -- This is an argument for winning as many games as you can against as many teams as you can, and therefore, pulling the goaltender.
2. League wins. -- This is an argument for winning as many games as you can against as many teams as you can, and therefore, pulling the goaltender.
3. Comparison of results of games against the top four teams. -- This is an argument for winning as many games as you can against as many teams as you can, and therefore, pulling the goaltender.
4. Comparison of results of games against the top eight teams. -- This is an argument for winning as many games as you can against as many teams as you can, and therefore, pulling the goaltender.
5. Goal differential in head-to-head competition. -- AHA! Perhaps we shouldn't pull the goaltender after all. Oh wait... this is the FIFTH tiebreaker, and it only has to do with goal differential with ONE OTHER TEAM.

When you're down, you pull the goaltender. When you're getting killed at home and nothing else is working, pull the goaltender. It was a sound plan, and it actually worked, too. RPI kept Union in their own zone for much of the five minutes it took Carr to send out a wing and a prayer from the neutral zone.


That honestly could have been the end of this, but for no apparent reason, after I snapped at this guy behind me about the empty net, he then sent me into orbit: "We should be playing the trap. 1-3-1."

Holy. Cow.

I don't even know where to begin, so I'll just start with this. Trap hockey is some of the most boring hockey you will ever watch. It is focused not on moving the puck and scoring goals, but rather on gumming up the neutral zone to keep the other team from transitioning and creating offense. Forechecking becomes practically non-existent, which leads to fewer offensive opportunities.

Yeah, that's just what a team struggling to score goals needs right now.

His excuse? "Oh, well the Lightning do it. New Jersey's played the trap for years."

Yeah, that would be the 12th place Lightning and 10th place Devils.

I mean, look how exciting 1-3-1 can be:

Amazing. How can we get this kind of fast paced play in Troy?

Listen, I love my school and I love hockey - real hockey, the way it is meant to be played, fast paced, with hard hitting, quick action, and puck battles. Fortunately, that's the way we've pretty much always played. But if we suddenly switched to some kind of trap or clutch and grab scheme, I'd stop coming to games - and this is coming from a person devoted enough to run a fan blog.

Why do you watch hockey? To see who can put more pucks in the net at any cost? Why'd you get interested in the sport in the first place?

Say RPI had an exceptionally good... oh, cricket team, for instance. Now, I'd be fairly proud of this team if they were national contenders on a regular basis. But would I go to watch them? I would not. Why? For the life of me, I just am not into cricket. Can't get excited about a sport that takes even longer than baseball to play.

When I go to watch hockey, I want to see good hockey. Over the years, there have been a number of games we've lost by more than a little that I at least enjoyed because it was good back and forth. There have been close games (last year's Cornell home game rings a bell) that was nauseatingly sleep inducing because of the clutch and grab the Big Red plays.

Bottom line? If boring hockey is acceptable to you, why not stare at the scoreboard for 60 minutes and forget about what's happening on the ice? It's almost as riveting.

My retort to the trap fan? "The trap is bull(stuff) hockey." Which I repeated over and over again until he got the point and clammed up. The trap may be a legitimate hockey scheme, but it comes at a cost of the game's very soul. Most real hockey fans don't enjoy it and I personally would never support a team that used it.

We may be struggling, but at least we've got a coach and a team that plays real hockey. I can live with that at the end of the day.

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