Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Big Game

Something was striking about Seth Appert's pre-weekend chat with the media last week:

"We don't put emphasis on one game over the other. We've tried to flush that mentality out of our team. That was the mentality when we got here, that it was important to get up for some games and others weren't as important. You will never win at the highest levels like that... Winning programs treat every game like it's the most important game of the season, and that's why I make that statement that it's so important that we treat all the games with that urgency. Not just Black Friday, or Freakout, or Clarkson, or Cornell, or whatever it is."

That was in response to a question about the 8-3 loss to Colgate in the Freakout, which is the fourth loss by three or more goals in that game in the last five years. That immediately followed a 17-year unbeaten streak during which it was pretty much standard procedure for ECAC teams to hope their visit to Troy didn't coincide with the game. Before this stretch, RPI had only lost by three in the Freakout three times (1981, 1982, 1986). It might be safe to say that if RPI isn't getting up for the Freakout, the opponents certainly seem to be.

With a 17-year stretch of no losses in the Freakout, maybe it's safe to agree with Appert that under Buddy Powers and Dan Fridgen, Freakout was considered an important game. But even if you try to claim it's the same as all the others, there are plenty of things that set it apart. The building is full and louder than usual. The team wears the road jerseys instead of the home jerseys. There are plenty of events surrounding the game, including a post-game appearance at the Alumni House with tons of alums. Frequently, it's on TV.

Yes, every ECAC game, at the end of the day, is worth two points. From a holistic standpoint, the game in November at home against Union is worth the same as the game in early January against Dartmouth is worth the same on the last day of the season at Cornell. But from a realistic standpoint, are all of these games really of the same value? Probably not. For one, we know more about positioning late in the season than we do early in the season. The games might be worth the same number of points, and of course we want to take as many points as possible - we want 44 when the season starts.

But just as all teams have ebbs and flows, so does the schedule. Appert points to last year's games in Alabama as reasons why the Engineers went to the national tournament, and one could make an argument along those lines. One could make an argument that since we were the last ones in and Dartmouth the first ones out, the season sweep of Dartmouth was more important. An objective observer could say that Alabama-Huntsville's win over Nebraska-Omaha put us in over Dartmouth, which brings us back to the importance of the UAH victories, of course, but nonetheless, those weren't exactly the best games RPI played last year.

Union gets up for RPI, there's no question. You can see if in the interviews done with their players before and after games. Beating RPI is the most important thing in the world, and it doesn't compare with beating, say, Princeton. But those games are worth the same number of points. There's even a third game that's worth no points, which this year, if you asked them, marked a major turning point of the year.

There's no game that can be taken easy, but unless you've already got a championship caliber team, there will naturally be some games that just are not as important as others. That's not to say that you don't want to see teams give 100% in every game, far from it. It's just psychologically difficult to make every single game the most important game of the year - especially this season. How could that midweek game against AIC possibly be as important as, for instance, a game against Cornell on national television?

So why not set yourself some benchmarks? When you're standing on that goal line before the Freakout trying to convince yourself that this game is no more important than the next, or the last, aren't you psyching yourself down a bit from a natural lift?

In years past, it was not unusual to hear players speaking with pride about the importance of certain games, and it wasn't uncommon to see big wins in big games provide boosts for future contests. Ask the 2001-02 Engineers what that big Freakout win did for them going forward - or if you like, just look at the schedule.

It's rare to see us disagree with Seth Appert, but for me, this is what it boils down to: when no game is more important than another, no game is really that important.

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