Underdog Fallacy in the NHL’s Second Season

Teal Colored Glasses
Okay, just imagine these glasses are teal, rather than rose and they're looking at a sheet of ice, not the ocean. Oh and those two people probably have hockey sticks or some shit like that.

As a fan of all sports, I always find myself fancying the underdogs over the favorites. I guess that doesn’t make me entirely original, but you get an idea of the type of sports fan I am.

I like cheering for the lower seed in the NCAA Tournament (assuming it won’t affect my bracket). Rarely do I jump bandwagons (2009-2010 San Francisco Giants, notwithstanding — don’t judge. I’ll explain in a future post.) And rarely do I discount a certain team just because they aren’t elite.

I mean, for goodness sakes, I’m a Raiders, A’s and Warrior fan, and loyal to a fault. By no means will anyone call those teams elite. In fact, next to being a Cleveland fan, that’s about as sad and depressing as you can get.

But then there are the San Jose Sharks — the team who I have the most vested interest in at the moment. The team who have been in the upper echelon of the league since Joe Thornton’s arrival in 2006. The team who, unlike all my other favorites, begin each season with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.

But this team, this team, ladies and gents, that boast superstars such as the aforementioned Thornton along with Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle and a strong core of other stars like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Martin Havlat and Brent Burns, find themselves coming into the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs as underdogs to the St. Louis Blues.

With 4 days between the last Sharks game on Saturday until the puck drop for game 1 tonight, I’ve needed to fill some sort of hockey thirst. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are the most exhilarating time of the year for hockey fans and waiting for them to start is agonizing, to say the least. So what have I done to pass time? Well first, I’ve been staying up-to-date on the ever-fantastic SBNation Sharks blog Fear the Fin (Seriously, the work they’re doing right now is superb. And the fact that I used superb in a sentence speaks volumes to their quality content. Highly recommend you visit there if you want some fantastic reads). But I’ve also decided to torture myself by reading how the media and experts think the series will unfold.

Needless to say, the things I’ve read aren’t flattering. Flattering for St. Louis, sure, but as a Sharks fan, they aren’t going to make you happy. The thing is, though, it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks because no one really knows. I don’t know why I even cared to do this. I guess I was hoping for some positive feedback from the media reassuring me of my own thoughts about this team — that they’re actually better than their seed. Not just kind of better but miles better. But I didn’t get it. Not in the least bit.

Usually by the start of round 1, I’m so used to reading how the Sharks are going to win the series handily, and how their bigger test will be in the later rounds of the playoffs. This is the first time where the coverage is reversed, where there are hefty predictions of an early first round exit. It’s not far-fetched as the Blues are an excellent team, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Sharks being a lower seed is a bit odd. And this opposite-type of a coverage kind of makes me uneasy. Less confident.

Then I remembered some of the articles I read during round 1 last season. Many of the “experts” predicted the Sharks to handle the Kings easily in 5. Well, it wasn’t easy, and it took them 6, damn near almost went 7 against a Kings team who were without Anze Kopitar, their best player. And it took a herculean effort in game 3 to really solidify that the Sharks had a grasp of the series.

And then there was the start of the playoffs yesterday, which I’m sure didn’t go as planned for a lot of gamblers out there. Granted, the sample size is small as it was only game 1, but it just goes to show how anything can happen on any given night.

All of this just further reinforces the idea of the “second season” in the NHL. Whatever happened during the regular season doesn’t matter anymore.

Dustin Penner, all 7 regular season goals of him, was the hero last night (albeit via Mike Richards).

Ilya Bryzgalov finally remembered what good goaltending actually is.

And Jimmy Howard was…well, Jimmy Howard. Not a terrible goalie, but not the Jimmy Howard that earned an All Star nod.

Coming in as an underdog or the lower seed is more or less a formality because the truth is, every team starts out 0-0.

The Sharks should relish coming in as the “so-called” underdog. They’ve never been in this position, but the obvious upside to the situation is that there is less pressure and they can play a lot more “loose and free” as Todd McClellan likes to say. They’re only considered an underdog because of the seed, but I highly doubt anyone will be all that surprised if the actually pull off an upset.

In fact, looking through the 5-8 seeds in the West, all 4 of those teams have a legit chance at an upset. They’re all better than their seed indicates. If anything, it’s just a testament to how deep and strong the Western Conference is.

At the same time, the Sharks don’t need to use the underdog label as their motivation. This team is good enough to do it on their own. These may be my teal colored glasses, actually I’m sure these are my teal colored glasses, but I’m going to call the Sharks in 6. The advantage may not be in the numbers, but there is no argument that the Sharks have better top end talent. And I choose to believe that their playoff experience will be monumental to their success. There are some intangibles during the playoffs that can only be learned through experience. Here’s to hoping it’s enough.

But we’re here now. Today at 4:30PM. This is right — I’m cheering for the underdog. It’s kind of what I do anyways.

Go Sharks.

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