By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 1) – You may not have loved Ron Wilson as coach of the Maple Leafs, but the man did know hockey.
When asked, on numerous occasions, about Phil Kessel being “snake-bitten”, Wilson invariably replied: “What does that mean? Snake-bitten. Does Phil need an anti-venom? Was he out hunting in the woods? There’s no such thing as a snake-bite in hockey.”
Typical Ronnie, huh? Sarcastic. Contemptuous. Never offering an excuse for his players. Unwilling to defend poor, unfortunate Phil.
Only, in this case, the former coach was 100 percent bang on.
There are recurrent life elements we can neither avoid nor control. Paying taxes. Falling victim to weather phenomenon. Growing agitated. Getting your wife to like The Three Stooges. And, ultimately, dying. By the same token, scoring a goal in hockey is categorical: Either you do, or you don’t. There is no difference, for example, between hitting a cross-bar, being thwarted by a goalie, sitting on the bench, shaving your beard or having breakfast at home. In none of these cases will a scoring stat be registered.
Luck, therefore, is an ambiguous term. Even winning a lottery with, say, a one-in-ten-million chance is not luck. It’s a remarkable coincidence. In sport, there’s an old adage that contends a player “makes his own luck.” If anyone can provide instruction on how to accomplish that, please let me know. I’ll start doing it immediately and share it with my family and friends.
Phil Kessel, scoreless in seven games to begin the truncated NHL season, is said to be snake-bitten; the victim of appalling, detestable luck. You hear it all over TV and radio. If that is the case, we must therefore assume Kessel got lucky 37 times last season; that Steven Stamkos got lucky on 60 occasions (head out of the gutter, men). We must also conclude that Mark Fistric of the Dallas Stars – with no goals in 60 games – was about the unluckiest person in sport. The fact this is likely the only time you’ll see Phil Kessel and Mark Fistric mentioned in the same paragraph indicates the fallibility of luck.
“UNLUCKY” PHIL KESSEL BOWS HEAD IN LEAFS HOME OPENER AGAINST BUFFALO. GREG ABEL GETTY IMAGES NHL.COM
Success at the top level of professional sport is a tri-product of skill, determination and circumstance. James van Riemsdyk, acquired by the Leafs from Philadelphia last summer, has four goals this season – four more than Kessel. Is van Riemsdyk as innately skilled as Kessel? Absolutely not. But, watch how he scores. JVR plants himself in the immediate vicinity of the net. He is quick and talented enough to capitalize on rebounds. That he volunteers to stand in the most perilous spot on the ice enables him to score at close range. It has nothing at all to do with fortune or chance.
Second-year Leaf Matt Frattin – potentially a rising star – scored what appeared to be a lucky overtime goal in Buffalo Tuesday night. He chipped a shot under the arm of Ryan Miller with 1.5 seconds remaining in the extra period. The timing was a terrific example of circumstance. The fact Miller was on his knees provided opportunity. There was nothing, however, lucky about the goal, as Frattin bulled toward the Sabres net on his off-wing and accurately fired the puck at the only vacancy granted by Miller. Had Frattin circled toward the corner and looked for a teammate, the clock would have expired. Effort and determination allowed for the dramatic goal.
Kessel is more of a buzz-saw. There is hardly any design to the way he maneuvers in the attacking zone. Unless he has a step on the player defending him in a one-on-one situation, he will rarely make a bee-line for the net. Speed and puck-handling ability allows for him to dart into open spaces where he can utilize a formidable shot. But, he spends limited time in the “dirty” areas around the goal. As such, Kessel is almost never the recipient of a “lucky” bounce. Though he’s determined and resourceful in the offensive zone, his achievement mostly results from God-given ability.
There is also misconception about “luck” around the net. If a player hits the goal-post or cross-bar with a shot, he is considered unlucky. But, defeating goalies in the NHL today – with their aptitude and bulked-up equipment – requires precision. That’s why there are relatively few prolific scorers. The space allowed for in a standard net – measured from the bottom of the cross-bar and inner-portion of the goal-posts – is four feet by six feet. If a shooter fires the puck six feet and two inches in width, a loud clang will be heard in the arena and a gasp will emanate from the crowd. Broadcasters will describe the shooter as “unlucky.” If it happens two or three times in a game, the term “snake-bitten” will arise. Almost never will a goaltender be credited with blocking the shooter’s range. Nor will the shooter be cited for inaccuracy.
Instead, we’ll hear that the goalie was “beaten” and fortunate to have the puck deflect off the iron. I’ve always been led to understand, however, that a goalie is “beaten” when the puck enters the net. Otherwise, he has properly negated the shooting angle, whether the puck hits the post or sails four feet wide. Occasionally, a player will muff a shot with the goalie out of position and most of the net available. Is that a matter of “luck” or has the player either panicked and hurried his shot, or merely flubbed the opportunity? When a forward registers seven or eight shots in a game – routine for Kessel – and does not score, is he “snake-bitten” or has the opposition goalie simply done the job for which he is paid? Normally, the latter is disregarded.
While luck doesn’t exist in hockey, patterns do. And, though Kessel has almost always counted a goal by the seventh game of the season – he had nine in that opening span a year ago – a lengthy slump is hardly unusual. Last season, a six-game famine represented Kessel’s high, but he scored only twice in 11 games between Feb. 9 and Mar. 3. Two seasons ago, he was blanked in 12 games and scored only twice in 21 matches during the same streak (Oct. 18 to Dec. 4). Still, he contributed a team-leading 32 goals. Kessel’s pattern of running hot and cold will likely persist for as long as he skates in the NHL.
“Luck” will have nothing to do with it.
HANG IN THERE LEAF DIE-HARDS AND YOU’LL SEE MUCH MORE OF THIS.
As such, fans of the Maple Leafs should not become terror-stricken over Kessel’s impotent start. Ultimately, he will find the range and mount a furious assault on opposing netminders. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again. Once it happens, the term “snake-bitten” will dissolve.
If you don’t believe me, ask Ron Wilson.
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