23 April, 2014


On Moneyball Moves, and a One of a Kind Motivation

Cup'pa JoeI am just returned from Pittsburgh, where Dad and I took in a most memorable Frozen Four. You know how a 16 seed has never knocked off a no. 1 seed in NCAA hoops? Well, it just happened in college hockey. The Yale Bulldogs, having fielded teams in men’s college hockey since the late 19th century without ever winning much of anything, won their first-ever national championship — of any kind — over the weekend in Pittsburgh. The Bulldogs were not only the very last team to qualify for college hockey’s single elimination postseason this spring, they most assuredly weren’t one of the best sixteen Division I teams based on regular season achievement. Incidentally, Yale is coached by Keith Allain, who served as an assistant with the Capitals from 1993-97.

As an Ivy League institution Yale competes in D-I competition — most particularly in hockey — on a very uneven slate of playing fields: the Ivies don’t award athletic scholarships. Some of the Bulldogs’ competitors this hockey season had 18 skaters on scholarship.

Something very special happened to Yale hockey this spring, right in the nick of time. Barry Melrose has suggested it was simply a case of a team inexplicably gelling and getting hot right when it had to. Yale defeated cross-state rival Quinnipiac in the title game this past Saturday night, in the fourth meeting between the clubs this college hockey season. Quinnipiac, which won 21 consecutive games at one point this college hockey season and spent a fair portion of it ranked no. 1,  won the first three meetings of the season between the teams, and rather decisively: 6-2, 4-1, and 3-0. Yale actually scored the first two goals between the teams and then watched the Bobcats score 15 of the next 16 goals. Saturday night’s championship tally? 4-0 Yale, naturally.

I was engrossed watching Allain’s guys skate in Pittsburgh. They’re without elite, difference-making talent. In Jeff Malcolm they had a senior netminder likely headed only for beer league action after this spring’s fun run. But the Bulldogs had terrific quickness, guts, and guile, and they executed Allain’s blueprint for success with lethal determination and efficiency. They possessed and passed the puck brilliantly, and their puck support — especially laterally entering the offensive zone — was a thing of beauty to behold. Dad and I felt lucky to witness them in action in person.

Dad has a Capitals app on his new smartphone, and he was keeping abreast of the action on the ice back in D.C. while we were seated in Consol Energy Center. As he relayed updates to me I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between the Bulldogs and the Caps. Neither was much of a postseason candidate a month ago, and like Yale, if the Caps do qualify this week or next, they won’t much be on anyone’s contender’s list. And like Yale that may just not matter. Though we don’t much know about it in these parts — particularly in spring — winning can become infectious.

It doesn’t happen all that often in sports, but occasionally teams simply gel beyond their means, arrive at a sum-better-than-its-parts cohesion and confidence, and simply beat everyone in their path, night after night. That’s precisely what Yale did. In ECAC conference postseason play Yale actually didn’t score even a single goal, losing to Union 5-0 and to Quinnipiac 3-0 in the third week of March. Then came single elimination postseason play and everything changed: Down went Minnesota, down went North Dakota, down went another no. 1, UMass-Lowell. And what manner of confidence could the Bulldogs have had going into Saturday night’s championship tilt, having been smoked by Quinnipiac in all three meetings this season? But the Bulldogs of January or February weren’t the Bulldogs of April. In my hotel room Saturday morning I caught Melrose on TV for an ESPN puck preview segment, and he well warned: It’s tough to take down a hot hockey club four straight times in a season.

There’s a bit of a ‘Moneyball’ quality, too, to these Caps, I think. If you watched the Brad Pitt movie chronicle of the 2002 Oakland Athletics you’ll recall how that rag-tag club inexplicably won a record 20 consecutive games between August and September of that year. These Capitals have a couple of rich superstar talents that those A’s didn’t, but like the A’s they’re rife with roster flaws, and now like Oakland and Yale all they’re doing is winning every night. Steve Oleksy is a Moneyball kind of impact player for me. So, too, is Mike Ribeiro — a veteran hired hand of achievement who’s doing his job precisely as his hiring manager envisioned. In Moneyball your best players have to be your best players, unheralded hires have to overachieve, your clubhouse has to gel, and you have to get a little lucky here and there. Sounds a lot like the Caps of spring 2013.

But Moneyball lacked a compelling love storyline, perhaps explaining why guys seemed to like it a heck of a lot more than girls.

I’ve an office colleague with a notable background in competitive tennis,  and he was working out at his racket club in McLean last Friday when a young woman of inordinate beauty and fitness lodged herself on the stationary bike next to him. My co-worker got excited because he’s a big Maria Kirilenko fan. He’d noticed her pointed out in the stands, seated among the Ovechkin clan, on a number of Capitals’ television broadcasts of late. With the tennis calendar being what it is Kirilenko’s hanging around town a lot, and it’d be easy to surmise having a somewhat inspiring effect on the hockey player who adores her. When I played merely late-night beer league hockey and had my girl in the stands I always wanted to score two goals, assist on at least one other, and perpetrate a notable act of unsanctioned ferocity for her. Knowing my thoughts related to hockey’s being perpetually cursed here, you can well imagine how I might welcome love’s inspiration — along with Moneyball luck and a roster’s unlikely confluence of confidence and congealing — this spring.