Does “Puck Luck” Lift The Stanley Cup?

You’ve probably heard it over and over — hoisting the Stanley Cup at the end of a grueling two-month playoff season hinges on a few breaks, both good and bad. With the parity of today’s NHL, it’s not surprising that playoff games and entire series can come down to a bouncing puck, a mindless deflection in front of the net or a blown edge on a skate. It’s this controlled chaos that makes the quest for the Cup so damn exciting. At any moment — and usually when you least expect it — a series can completely flip.

But as much as these breaks can lead to the excitement of moving to the next round or the disappointment of falling short of the ultimate prize, are we really content with believing that the “hardest trophy in sports to win” is simply a matter of luck?

There’s no way to quantify the fortune of a particular team. Sure there are new enhanced statistics that can look at save percentage and shooting percentage to determine which teams are getting results they may not deserve, but no number can represent a broken stick that leads to a breakaway or an unlucky clear that goes over the glass and puts a team on the penalty kill.

It’s not about how much; it’s what you do with it.

Does this so-called “puck luck” exist? Of course it does. Don’t forget that this is a sport played with a rubber disk that’s shot around with sticks, and all of it’s done while players balance on steel blades on a playing surface made of ice.

How could luck and good/bad bounces not be involved? So to be clear, I’m not arguing that luck isn’t present in hockey, because it’s there.

But don’t confuse the existence of luck with the role it plays in deciding a game or an entire playoff series. Pucks bounce in weird ways on every single shift, which is kind of the point when you play with a small rubber disc. Even top-notch players slip and fall, also something that should be expected when playing on a surface made of ice. Many hockey fans refer to these regular occurrences as interventions from the “hockey gods,” merely an attempt to rationalize the chaos occurring during a hockey game. If there’s one true thing about these “hockey gods,” it’s that they play fair — always.

If one team gets a fortunate bounce, you’d better believe a bad bounce is coming back at them. At the end of the day, and especially within a seven-game series, the breaks tend to even themselves out. Therefore, winning isn’t a matter of luck at all. Instead, it’s all about what a team does with that luck, because as I’ve already said, opportunities exist for both teams on every single shift.

Do you know why bad puck luck isn’t talked about with teams who are consistently successful in the playoffs? It’s not becuase they never see a tough break or a bad bounce. It’s because those teams overcome those bad bounces, they take advantage of their opportunities and more importantly, they win. Why would fans go back and talk through the bad stuff when their team has moved on? Exactly, they don’t.

As I watched the Chicago Blackhawks finish their sweep of the Minnesota Wild, there were several frustrated Minnesota fans pointing to Chicago’s “puck luck” as the reason the Blackhawks were about to win four straight games. Not that I went back and checked, but I’m sure every fanbase that’s been eliminated has made similar claims. It’s a natural response to justify the letdown of being eliminated from the playoffs. It’s easier to say the team that beat you was lucky than to say they’re the better team. But, that doesn’t mean these devastated fans are correct.

It’s simple — the Blackhawks have a reputation for making big plays at the most important moments. In other words, they capitalize on both opportunities that they’ve earned and those resulting in puck luck. Unfortunately, Minnesota isn’t quite there yet. It seems like Chicago takes advantage of each and every break, which may lead people to believe they get more luck than other teams, but they don’t. They just take advantage of those opportunities more than any other team. There’s a big difference.

The perfect example was when Rozsival’s ankle exploded and Vanek headed in on a breakaway — a lucky break. Well, Vanek didn’t score and Crawford came up big. Minnesota didn’t take advantage, and Crawford made a critical save at the big moment to overcome a bad break. See my point, here?

In my heart, I can’t possibly believe that the Stanley Cup is handed to a team’s captain based on luck. Every single locker room has good and bad luck in the playoffs, but it tends to level out over a seven-game series — the point of playing seven games in the first place.

When Joe Sakic handed the Stanley Cup to Ray Bourque, it wasn’t because of luck.

When Steve Yzerman placed the trophy on Vladimir Konstantinov’s lap, it wasn’t because of luck.

And to say anything otherwise takes credit away from the players who deserve it most — the players who worked their entire lives for the opportunity to lift the best trophy in sports. What separates champions from those who fall short is not about the amount of luck; it comes down to what you do with it.