Defining Momentum

Momentum is a difficult thing to really quantify in sports. Does it really exist? Does it have a tangible effect on a game? How would you even approach addressing this issue?

I will make no attempt to address the other sports in this post. This is just a post about the NHL. For the record, I don’t think momentum exists in baseball aside from, perhaps, a minor boost in confidence when things are going well. Having confidence can influence your play in a positive way, I suppose. That is probably the only way momentum really shows itself in baseball. What about hockey though?

Announcers and commentators league-wide use momentum as a talking point without ever addressing how one can attain momentum or how to sustain it or how it really affects play. Again, aside from the small boosts in play gained by confidence, I definitely DO NOT think momentum exists on a game by game basis. Individual games are a different beast entirely.

One of the coolest things to watch in hockey is the snowball-effect of a team that has momentum and is just pouring it on the opposing team. There is almost a knowledge that you’re watching something special when it happens. Sometimes momentum only lasts a shift or two shifts, but every time you have it, it probably has a deeper impact on the game than just that shift. That impact isn’t really quantifiable, but it exists; that impact will be addressed shortly.

One of the most obvious ways to gain momentum is the tremendous power play. Here is a perfect example, illustrated by the Sedins and the Vancouver Canucks.

Now, the obvious, immediate result was a goal. However, look beyond that. This is where it isn’t quantifiable and where you get off into tangential ideas, but you’d be hard pressed to convince me that fatigue doesn’t play a role for the entirety of the rest of the game, or at the very least for the rest of the period. That is an absolute beast of a shift by the PK unit of the Oilers. The Oilers went on to lose that game 4-1.

Jarret Stoll, Sheldon Souray, Marty Reasoner, and Matt Greene were the four men on the ice for the duration of that kill. Stoll did manage to pick up an assist on a goal later in that game, but the rest weren’t heard from. Souray ended up collecting two minor penalties before, essentially, being tossed out of the game with 11:14 left to play. Reasoner isn’t really worth noting as he only had nine minutes of ice time in the game (nearly a third of it on ONE SHIFT), but Greene was on the ice for a power play goal against just over two minutes later.

You don’t need to be an athlete to know how hard it is to recover after you’ve pushed yourself really hard and perhaps too far. At most, the two minutes of game time that elapsed between the goals took up five minutes, maybe seven with a commercial break. I know when I’ve pushed myself too far running, I don’t move the same even though I can technically still move around and drudge on. I certainly don’t feel the same. Then there’s the fact that none of them were heard from at all later in the game. For Greene, I suppose that’s a good thing as being heard from usually means he’s making a bonehead mistake or bleeding profusely OUT OF HIS FACE. For Stoll and Souray, not so much.

Stoll really shouldn’t be included, I suppose, as his shorthanded assist was essentially his goal. He created a breakaway and left Cogliano with a wide-open net. Still, it was on a breakdown by the Canucks, not some tremendously heavy cycle shift or a booming slapshot from the point like Stoll is noted for. Good hard work, yes. A testament to a wealth of remaining stamina…no. The Oilers created absolutely very little for the rest of that game, and two of their better offensive players in Stoll and Souray were either average or non-existent. Souray picked up 14 of his 36 penalty minutes on the entire season in the third period of that game. He’s not a Lady Byng winner by any stretch, but it’s not hard to point to fatigue being a factor in his penalties.

Still, this is flimsy. I recognize this. It’s completely anecdotal evidence and I really have nothing concrete. I believe it, but you don’t have to. My final point is a little more solid, though the actual effect is difficult to gauge.

When a team can put together even one good shift that involves holding the puck in deep in the opposing zone, it can at least temporarily swing the game around. Even if the defending team manages to work the puck out of the zone, they are either gassed or literally at the end of a shift. They dump the puck in, and the attacking team can regroup while the defending team changes lines. The new line starts their shift on the defensive. This is when you start to get that train-effect. This is how comebacks are created.

There is a feeling of inevitability when you start stringing similar shifts together. Anyone that has seen an epic comeback, like the one previously linked, knows exactly what I’m talking about. You start winning faceoffs, the other team is tired (common perception is that defense is more tiring than offense), and the chances just keep coming. It doesn’t only happen in comebacks, it’s just more noticeable when they happen in such a fashion.

I do not really believe in the mental aspect of momentum. That is an idea that I really wish to dispel, I guess. That’s where announcers point to and it irritates me. Yes, I mentioned having a “knowledge” that good things were coming, but it’s more of a fan-feeling than a player-feeling, I think. The real effect of momentum is more obvious and yet somehow overlooked at the same time. It’s fatigue. That’s why getting the “momentum” or “flow” going your way early in a game is so critical, and it’s why the first goal is so important. It’s not really a mental thing, although I’m sure that exists in some small amount. It’s the physical. It’s being put back on your heels, playing tense hockey, and coming out on the short end of the stick.

If you were going to define momentum, I think the latter point is what I’d more readily look at. You could probably compare it to field position in football, but it’s probably easier to overcome field position than it is to overcome constantly being on the defensive. While I certainly do not think momentum exists from game to game, I don’t think you can really deny that it exists within a game.

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