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The League of Extraordinary Statisticians: The Greatest Game

The League of Extraordinary Statisticians (LOES) is a weekly forum bringing together the top analytical minds in the hockey world to answer a variety of questions that straddle the line between stats analysis and something you might hear floating around section 304.  They have agreed to answer these questions in a few paragraphs or less, and with minimal formulae.  Because this is a forum, we'd encourage you to use the comments section to answer the questions yourselves, or to discuss or debate the answers given.

The LOES is not meant to represent the entire of the hockey stats community.  There are a number of people that either were too busy or too difficult to contact for the purposes of the forum.

Sometimes, it's the game that first hooked you as a little kid; other times it's that amazing matchup made all the more spectacular because you were there.  Maybe it was your first time in Madison Square Garden/the Montreal Forum/the Staples Center, or if you're really lucky the first time you watched the Stanley Cup Finals in-person.  It could happen because something a player did robbed you of the ability to speak, even for just a second.  It could even happen with your ass plunked on the couch, yelling at the screen and scaring the neighbors.  Either way, we all have that game we saw that was our favorite, the greatest to us, the one that sticks with us the same way we might remember our first crush.  Believe it or not, our LOES has not only watched a hockey game, but has also seen enough games to choose a few favorites.

The idea behind the question is this: what would a group of statisticians, who analyze the game to its finest details, appreciate in a hockey game?  Do they simply view the game through apathetic eyes, waiting for the numbers to come in before deciding to get excited?  Or is it in these moments that we realize that they are hockey fans first, and that for as objective as they might be they are still consumed by the thrill of good hockey and greater personal or universal context?

The question for this week: What was the greatest hockey game that you ever saw? 

Note: It doesn't necessarily have to be in-person.

The greatest hockey game I ever saw on TV was Game 5 Rangers, Islanders, 1984.  It was end-to-end action, overtime, deciding game.  Anyone who's ever seen that game would be it in their top 5 for sure.

Best game live was Game 5, 1993 Cup-winning game.  I have no idea if it was a great game, but I know I never felt like that for any sports event. So, being there I think probably magnified whatever magic that game had.

- Tom Tango, and author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball

I loved watching Mario Lemieux, so one choice would be the 1987 Canada Cup where he teamed up with Wayne Gretzky.  Everybody remembers the final game which featured the famous clip of the two of them scoring the series-winning goal (while Dale Hawerchuk interfered with a defenseman, and after which Larry Murphy got absolutely clobbered).
I remember his comeback to the NHL - I was on a family trip to Cuba and we somehow managed to find a place that had a satellite dish so we could all watch the game.  It was amazing that he was still so dominant, making the 2002 Olympic gold medal game vs the USA so thrilling to watch.  That's the game where he had the greatest goal-creating play on which a player received no credit with his no-look phantom bluff-shot.
The final Mario choice would be in the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals against Minnesota.  Everyone remembers his dramatic goal from Game 2, but I'd pick the clinching Game 6 where they destroyed the North Stars 8-0.  Note to Bettman: blow-outs can be entertaining too!
Of course there have been a lot of great games, played by a lot of great players, but for whatever reason the Mario classics are the ones that stick in my mind.  Force me to choose and I'll go with the 1987 Canada Cup.

- Rob Vollman, Hockey Prospectus

Greatest game I ever watched.  I think a great game is made by context.  A game with a lot on the line, where your team manages to win a well played, hard fought game.
I am a Vancouver Canuck fan.  That means that winning the big one is not something that has happened (yet).  I was given a Vancouver Canuck bottle opener for Christmas that "talks".  It has Jim Robson's call of the Canucks defeat of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the semi-finals in 1994 to go to the Stanley Cup finals.  Although that brings back fond memories, it is sad that the highlight of 40 years of Vancouver Canuck hockey is a semi-final victory.
The biggest game I ever watched was the 2010 Olympic gold medal game.  I think everyone knows the context.  Vancouver Olympics.  Canada vs. USA.  USA had beaten Canada earlier in the tournament.  That left Canada a tough path to the finals, but they got there.
USA tied the game with less than 30 seconds left to send it to overtime.  Sidney Crosby scores the gold medal winning goal in overtime.  That goal makes Crosby a legend.  It is now clear that even if his career were to go south (lets say he cannot recover fully from his current concussion), he will be remembered positively for that goal.  His goal is arguably the biggest goal in Canadian hockey history, right up there with Paul Henderson.
After the game ended, my phone would not stop ringing.  Everyone I knew had to call to celebrate the win with me.

- Greg Ballentine, The Puck Stops Here at Kukla's Korner

Wednesday, May 25, 1994. The Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6. Exit 16W off the New Jersey Turnpike, Brendan Byrne Arena. "Mark Messier's Guarantee". My New York Rangers against the New Jersey Devils. Messier, Adam Graves, Alex Kovalev, Steve Larmer, Esa Tikkanen, Brian Leetch, Sergei Zubov, Jeff Beukeboom, Mike Richter...and yes, Glenn Anderson and some other passengers.
After watching the Rangers dominance throughout the season, it was inexplicable to me that they were on the brink of elimination. The Devils looked like they might arrive a year early, with Jacques Lemaire's defensive system giving shape to a team led by the likes of Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, Scott Niedermayer, Bill Guerin, John MacLean, Stephane Richer and Claude Lemieux. Yet not many folks remember that New York took the season series six games to none (and outscoring them 24-9). GM Neil Smith (cough!) was lauded for a bunch of truculent deadline acquisitions (especially after "Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!") but to me, the Blue Shirts traded speed and skill for ephemeral playoff toughness and a bit of Oilers magic past its expiration date (Notably, Mike Gartner and Tony Amonte were sent packing to acquire Anderson, Brian Noonan, Stephane Matteau and Craig MacTavish). I firmly believe that the Game 6 and Game 7 heroics would not have been needed if the Rangers kept their best lineup intact; the speed and skill would have made a difference against the Lemaire's defense.
With tickets at Madison Square Garden nearly impossible to get, I'd picked up a Devils' playoff ticket package during the second round of the playoffs, believing that both the Rangers and Devils would make the conference finals and that New York would prevail...hence, I believed I was buying 2-3 sets of Rangers playoff tickets. It worked out.
The Devils were really, really tough defensively and led 2-0. Scoring was starting to seem hopeless. Late in the second period, I wondered aloud to my girlfriend at what point we should pull the plug on the game, so that we didn't have to deal with Jersey fans celebrating a trip to the Finals around us. Incidentally, the competing chants in those days went "Nineteen-forty!" and "Nineteen-nothing!", among the divided crowd. My, how things have changed.
Messier's guarantee is what's remembered of the game, but it was an Alex Kovalev laser beam that broke the ice late in the second. Finally, Brodeur and the Devils' D wasn't impenetrable anymore. Interestingly, only three Rangers registered points that game: Messier, Leetch and Kovalev. And I won't lie: that game was exhilaration.
It's funny--I flew to Finland and Sweden for vacation before Game 7. After Game 6, I knew the Rangers would win, and I never have watched a minute of the "'Matteau!' Game".

- Timo Seppa, Hockey Prospectus


This is a really tough question.  Any number of games come to mind, but I'll go with two. Perhaps the best game I ever watched on television was Game 6 of the 2008 Western Conference Semifinal between Dallas and San Jose. I had just set up my first HDTV that night, and this was the first game I saw in HD. The four overtime thriller, with Nabokov and Turco making save after save was phenomenal. The second game was the final game of the season last year for the Flyers, where their playoff hopes depended. I attended thanks to a commenter at BSH (thanks again beatniche) and proceeded to watch the Flyers rally from an early 1-0 deficit to tie the game before going to a shootout. The atmosphere inside was one that could hardly be described. There was frustration, hope, anxiety, fear, and more. There's just something about elimination games in hockey that make them that much better.

- Geoff Detweiler, Broad Street Hockey

I can't pinpoint one game, but the Pond Hockey Championships in Minnesota are simply awesome. I can watch/play hockey like that all day.

- Corey Pronman, Hockey Prospectus

All-Time Best Games in Person:

1) April 12, 1986.  Calgary at Winnipeg.  A lot of snow in Winnipeg
 kept attendance at just 8,123 on a Saturday night.  Jets GM John Ferguson had fired his head coach late in the season and taken over
coaching duties.  Fed up with his goaltending, he called up 20-year-old, 155-lb Daniel Berthiaume from the QMJHL and started him against the Flames in the 3rd game of their best-of-five series, facing elimination.  Every time the Flames scored, the Jets responded, and they almost went ahead on a Dale Hawerchuk shot that went off both posts.  The game went into overtime and Lanny McDonald ultimately put the Jets away.  One only wonders how the Jets would have done with Randy Carlyle (out with a back injury following a fight in the dressing room) and Dave Babych (spitefully traded away by Ferguson.)

2) February 24, 2010.  Russia vs Canada at Hockey Place in Vancouver. Canada's 7-3 win looks a bit anti-climactic in retrospect, but this was an early matchup between the #1 and #2 teams in the tournament and the result was very much in doubt.  Canada come out on fire and I don't think I've ever seen a crowd as excited as that one.

All-Time Best Game on TV:

No question: February 28, 2010.  United States vs Canada in Vancouver.  And February 24, 2002, United States vs Canada in Utah.  A friend of mine described the first as the best day of his life, his wedding day included.  And the second was a deeply-satisfying and exciting win that silenced all of the chants of "U-S-A" in the bar where I was watching the game.

- Gabe Desjardins, and, of course, Behind the Net

Like any favorite sport, hockey is never far away from the kid that was drawn to it or the adult that discovers it for the first time.  They can talk about it, break it down, turn actions into numbers and make those numbers into simulations, analysis, and predictions, but at the end of the day our LOES is a group of hockey fans that would just as soon watch the game over a beer as they would over a stat counter.

This particular forum is less a discussion than a celebration.  Share with us the greatest game you ever saw in the comments below.  I'll chip in my two cents in a later post.

P.S. LOES will be taking a one-week All-Star Game hiatus before returning in February.  Enjoy the game!