Momentum Or The Moment? | Defector

Momentum Or The Moment? | Defector

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Is momentum real? Do past outcomes—the outcomes themselves, and not the processes that led to them—influence future results? This is the great open question of sports, and specifically of hockey, subject as it is to the vectorial whims of a tipped puck or the nightly efficacy of a goaltender’s stretching routine. If it exists, the Florida Panthers had all of it, and then they didn’t. They were inevitable Stanley Cup champs, until they weren’t. Momentum was all theirs, through a division title and a dominant-looking postseason run and the first three games of the Final, where they made the Oilers look overmatched—and then it was gone. Deserted, for the Edmonton locker room. A traitor to the Panther cause. Momentum is slippery.

Ask the Oilers about momentum. About the swings in a game, a series, a season, a franchise’s fortunes. Ask them how the same team that started 5-12-1 and fired its coach could immediately rip off eight straight wins, or how every three-game losing streak of theirs this year was followed by a substantial winning streak. Ask them how they, or any team, could win 16 straight games, if momentum isn’t real. But then ask them how, if momentum is real, dispatching their division’s and then their conference’s top seeds didn’t mean jack for the start of the Final. For three games, they looked like they didn’t belong. Then, for the next three, they looked invincible. Momentum is fickle.

Momentum is real if players believe in it. On a technical level, this is about playing with confidence, and avoiding panic or fatalism, which leads to mistakes on the ice. This makes sense; there’s nothing woo-woo about it. But on a practical level, something that gains its power from belief is indistinguishable from a deity. And momentum is no benevolent creator, nor a vengeful storm god. It is an unknowable trickster god, and it must be appeased. Athletes know this, inherently, even if they flail about trying to find the right way to worship. Playoff beards. Connor McDavid’s suit. The Panthers’ about-face on touching the Prince of Wales Trophy. All attempts to convince momentum to lean your way.

Momentum was never leaning so deeply as it was before Monday’s Game 7. The Panthers were toast. Trying to convince reporters, and maybe themselves, that Game 7 was a childhood dream come true, even if that dream probably didn’t involve squandering a 3-0 lead to get there. The Oilers, with so many of their fans in the building the Canadian anthem was a mass singalong, were ready to be crowned. Who would deny them? They had outscored Florida 20-5 over the previous 10 periods of hockey. But maybe the flip side of momentum as belief is that it doesn’t exist if you don’t believe in it. A new game is a new chance, even when it’s the last game and the last chance. Not even five minutes into it, Carter Verhaeghe tipped a puck down momentum’s throat.

“Mr. Clutch” had probably never scored a goal this clutch. Is it possible for a first-period goal to be clutch? Only if you believe in momentum—if the threads of a series continue down past puck drop of the next game. Verhaeghe wasn’t merely opening the scoring; he was snipping one thread, the one that said his team was doomed. When asked about it, he answered as if the threads reached back even further than that. “We’ve been grinding for two years,” he said.

The reprieve would not be won so easily. Darryl Sutter, a coach who’s seen more than his share of ups and downs, has said he doesn’t believe that momentum carries over from game to game—”then most series would be over in four”—but that it holds sway within games. How, then, to explain the Oilers answering right back two minutes later, Mattias Janmark taking advantage of a breakaway to knot the score? Didn’t he know Florida was supposed to have the momentum now? Didn’t Sergei Bobrovsky know? Did they care?

What ensued was some of the best, most intense hockey you’ll see in your life. Both teams skated at their highest level in a tied Game 7, and that level, with the skills of these skaters, was very high indeed. Edmonton repeatedly tried and failed to crack Florida’s redoubt, looking to set up the high-speed zone entries that have led to so many centering-pass goals but being denied the space. The Panthers kept bouncing off a compact Oilers defensive formation, settling for deflection attempts from the perimeter because the slot was unconquerable. A battle of heavyweights taking their best swings, of defenses forcing offenses to abandon their preferred game plans in favor of opportunistic scrap-grabbing. Big hits, long stretches of whistle-free action, unsustainable heart rates. That’s what hockey looks like when momentum hasn’t yet been claimed one way or the other—when it teeters on a blade’s edge.

With five minutes remaining in the second period, the season was decided. It came down to, of all things, each team’s third defensive pairing. In such seemingly small battles, wars are won and lost. Dmitry Kulikov was able to blindly and mostly accidentally clear a puck from his own crease as he fell. A breakout the other way saw coverage confusion between Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak that allowed Sam Reinhart to snipe the go-ahead goal.

Now it was time for the tension to ratchet beyond a sane viewer’s comfort level. It was that endearingly hockey-specific form of momentum, where the team with the advantage looks like a team under siege. Focusing on avoiding mistakes and preventing odd-man rushes, the Panthers would spend much of the final 25 minutes in their own half, disrupting entries and denying clean looks, and Bobrovsky, playing some of the best goal of his career after three nightmarish games, was on top of everything he needed to be. It is what smart, sound, hockey played by composed professionals looks like, even if it feels like hell. A thought crossed my mind somewhere in that pressure cooker of a third period, the thought fleeting and not one I endorse in the light of day, but it was very real: I was glad my team wasn’t involved. I don’t know how I could have survived it.

The opposite of momentum might be desperation. The Oilers were desperate, and tired, but still the Oilers, so they had their chance. An extended shift in the offensive zone gave Edmonton their best looks of the game, all turned away to the delight and agony of an increasingly feral crowd, before devolving into chaos in front of Bobrovsky. You can’t see it until the replay, but Gus Forsling and then Brandon Montour saved the day with a pair of perfectly placed sticks to disrupt tantalizingly good chances for Connor McDavid and Zach Hyman. Those are the margins in which Cups are won.

Some casual cardiac events later, and the Florida Panthers were lifting their first Stanley Cup, earned through suffering. “The last 12 days, what we’ve been through is excruciating,” Reinhart said. Head coach Paul Maurice, the NHL’s bench poet laureate, declared, “We had to lose three to learn how to win four.”

Maurice had to lose a lot more than that. After 26 seasons, 10,457 days, and 1,985 games as a head coach, he becomes, by a significant amount, the most experienced bench boss to win his first Cup. Bobrovsky, too, set a record for the most games as a backstop—794—before his first championship. These two, I would suspect, took the least for granted when the Panthers were up three games to none. Nothing is inevitable. Everything must be fought for.

Back to Darryl Sutter. “The team that wins the last game must have all the momentum,” he said. His Kings had just dropped Game 4 of the Final after going up 3-0. They would close it out in five. He was being facetious, but he may have been onto something. Maybe momentum is like a massive pendulum. It can be influenced by effort—you can cling to it, pull at it, try to hang on to it just a little bit longer, or wrest it back from your opponent—but its swing is inexorable. It’s yours until it isn’t, until you make it yours again. Maybe the most you can do is scratch and claw for every inch of ice, every degree of the pendulum’s sway, and if you do it hard enough for long enough, then just maybe—once in a lifetime if you’re lucky—when the clock stops it’ll be on your side.

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