Over the years, I’ve noticed that many sports fans truly delight in calling teams and/or players “chokers” even though that label is rarely accurate or fair. Beyond the armchair psychology one can implement in studying how “normal people” critique millionaire athletes, there are at least two fundamental problems with making these claims.
1. The premise ignores the accomplishments and talents of the opposing team.
2. Calling someone a “choker” hinges on the assumption that they truly have control over their successes and failures.
Both of those issues factored into the analysis of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s come-from-behind victory against the Boston Bruins in Saturday’s Game 4 match. While the Bruins should be deeply disappointed with how they played in the final two periods after building a 3-0 lead, that score was misleading in the first place. All three goals were the result of baffling blunders by the Lightning, but there was also more than a little bit of good fortune involved in each Boston goal. Michael Ryder’s 2-0 goal might symbolize those lucky bounces the best.
Yes, there were moments in the first period when the Lightning looked rattled – especially after Dwayne Roloson allowed Patrice Bergeron’s 3-0 shorthanded goal to squeak through his five-hole – but they actually came out with a lot of energy in the opening frame. A lot of teams might have given up a little bit in that situation, but the plucky Bolts kept at it and their steady pressure was rewarded in the form of a three-goal outburst in the second period (and eventually the win).
Tampa Bay’s effort has been more consistent through the first four games.
In the big picture view of this series, the Lightning are consistently out-playing the Bruins. Both teams had one clunker of a game (Boston’s Game 1 was worse than Tampa Bay’s Game 3, but they were both contests the teams would like back) while the Bruins won a toss-up in Game 2 and the Lightning outlasted Boston in Game 4. Shot totals can be a bit misleading at times, but it’s still telling that the Lightning have out-shot the Bruins in all four games, with an overall 143-123 advantage.*
Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said “We knew they wouldn’t quit” and there’s good reason to believe that he wasn’t just providing lip service. My feeling was that the Lightning were getting some lucky breaks while being occasionally outplayed through much of the first two playoff rounds, but Tampa Bay is flipping that situation on its head in the Eastern Conference finals. Now the Bruins are the ones who are staying in the series thanks to some timely goals and sporadically brilliant goaltending from Tim Thomas.
The Bruins have been a bit schizophrenic in this series. They laid a total egg in Game 1, won a wide-open Game 2, played “Bruins hockey” in Game 3 and then went from high to low in Game 4. Meanwhile, the Lightning seem like they are getting the most out of their team more often than not, even if Dwayne Roloson is starting to look human again.
A lot of Bruins fans probably feel like their team choked this afternoon, yet the truth might be more unsettling for them. More often than not in the first four games, the Lightning have just been better.
* – If you want the game-by-game shot totals, here they are:
Game 1: 34-33
Game 2: 41-35
Game 3: 31-25
Game 4: 37-30