By Winston Shi
Of all the harebrained ideas in hockey, the concept of the “worst lead” makes the least sense. There seems to be a belief that leading by two goals is actually worse than leading by one.
The idea is that if you lead by two and give up a goal, you’re leading by one and your goalie is rattled. Hockey is a very momentum-based sport, but not wanting to have a two-goal lead doesn’t seem to make sense, and more shockingly, some people have actually proposed that a three-goal lead is even worse. I challenge any hockey player to pass on scoring when his team is up by one so that he can avoid leading by two. I don’t think it has ever happened. On Monday, I watched the most entertaining game of hockey I’ve seen in a while, and it was only that morbidly compelling because the Toronto Maple Leafs had (correctly) first chosen to score, and score, and score and score again.
The reason why losing a two-goal lead is more feared than losing a one-goal lead is that you don’t expect to lose the former. No hockey player will ease up on the accelerator with only a one-goal lead. Up by two and some teams begin to relax and end up coughing it all up. Moreover, you absolutely expect to cough up one-goal leads every now and then; hockey is like that. A two-goal lead is more embarrassing and it sticks in your mind more deeply.
Case in point: I went to high school in Massachusetts, and while I’m not a Bruins fan I’ve watched enough games to know that the B’s have lost their fair share of one-goal leads. It’s always the two-goal leads (and greater) that stick in your memory.
One of my most enduring hockey memories is of UMass-Lowell choking away a four-goal lead to Boston College. And who could forget the Bruins giving up a three-goal lead in Game 7 of the conference semis against Philadelphia? Perhaps the most ridiculous ending I’ve seen occurred in the 2009 NCAA National Championship Game when Miami (OH) led Boston University by two goals with a minute left and proceeded to lose in overtime. When people ask me about the mystique of the ice, I will point to these games and tell them: “This is hockey.”
Which brings us to last Monday night.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are quite possibly the most hated team in hockey (combining the riches and hatred of the Yankees and the failure of the Mets). I would have compared them to the Boston Red Sox, but people didn’t really start hating the Sox until they started winning; the Leafs could lose every game for the next three years and people would still hate them. This year, they snapped a seven-year postseason drought — in a league where more than half the teams make the playoffs every year, that’s just plain embarrassing — and people didn’t pity them at all. The hate persisted.
They had rallied back from a 1-3 deficit in their series against the Bruins and forced a Game 7. Some stellar play had given them a 4-1 lead, but Nathan Horton scored midway through the third period to make it 4-2. At that point, the Leafs needed to hold the line for 10 minutes and 42 seconds in order to make it to the next round. Needless to say, the lead lasted for nine minutes and 51 seconds.
After Bergeron tied the game with less than a minute remaining, it was almost destined that the Leafs would lose the game in overtime, just as Miami did four years ago.
Regarding the actual loss, some truly horrendous defense and an inability to corral puck rebounds was to blame. But I’m sure that when the dust clears, when Toronto fans stop crying and everybody else stops laughing, people will start talking about the two-goal lead being the worst in hockey, again.
Maybe at this point I should stop complaining about the pundits. This was a rather impressive meltdown on Toronto’s part, and I’m sure that Boston chipping away at its lead had something to do with it. The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs in a while, as I noted. Maybe a lot of the Toronto players simply lacked the sort of experience that trains players to hold leads. That will come with time. Toronto has a good team and all the money in the world to throw at its remaining problems.
But it certainly seemed to me at least that the Leafs’ anti-legend has permeated the Leafs themselves — the fanbase, certainly, and perhaps even the team. Once the Bruins brought the game within one, the mood seemed to change; the Boston atmosphere was nice and rowdy and the fans never let the Leafs forget it. Like Boston’s Curse of the Bambino, the idea of the Leafs’ failure has gotten into the entire city’s heads. And isn’t that what the concept of the “worst lead in hockey” is all about?
When the Leafs lost in overtime, all the Toronto fans congregating in Maple Leaf Square turned away from the screen as one. In a split second, everyone went from watching the game to staring at the ground or filing out of the square. It was a uniformity of utter resignation absolutely stunning to behold. Far away in California, I watched their despair. Not quite agony. Agony implies that you actually thought you had a chance to win.
I’m not sure anybody deserves to feel that way.
But this is hockey.
When Winston Shi isn’t contemplating the best lead to have in hockey, he’s trying to think of the perfect way to ask his date to The Daily’s Banquet. Shannon Turley, you are officially being asked. If you’d like to accept his invitation, email Winston at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.