The following email arrived early this morning:
I just glanced at the Western Conference standings, and I saw the Colorado Avalanche in the number one slot. Are the standings in alphabetical order, or is this just a typo? Please help – this is hurting my brain.
Well, Mike, what you’re seeing is neither a typo nor the result of an alphabetization of the standings: Simply put, it’s what happens when a team plays with something I like to call the “Freedom of Low Expectations”. By that, I mean that the team has no hope (expectation) of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so there is no pressure on them to perform. In the absence of pressure, the team plays only for pride and/or for love of the game. They can take chances, as a loss carries with it no serious consequences. Meanwhile, most of their opponents are still battling for a playoff spot, so they grip their sticks tighter and take few (if any) chances, playing with a grim determination which barely masks their fear of failure (pretty good hockey psychobabble for a Native Texan who majored in Rangeland Ecology and Management, eh?). When those two teams meet, the one with nothing to lose often has a distinct advantage.
What makes Colorado’s case unusual is that the “Freedom of Low Expectations” is the third stage of the season for a non-playoff team, and isn’t normally reached until February (at the earliest). What are the three stages, you ask? Read on:
STAGE I: Early season playoff possibilities = pressure. The 2008-09 Atlanta Thrashers are an excellent example. Through Game 28 (when they were called at Tee Time by OGA), the Thrashers felt the pressure to perform – to strive for a playoff spot – while simultaneously adjusting to a new coach and system. They didn’t fare well, posting a record of 9-15-4, and being called OUT of the playoffs by OGA on 12 DEC 2008
STAGE II: The Bruce Willis/Sixth Sense Stage. During Games 29-54, the pressure placed on the Thrashers increased, because just like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, they didn’t know they were dead (no, there wasn’t a Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t seen the movie by now, you never will). During this stage, Atlanta went 9-16-1.
STAGE III: The Freedom of Low Expectations. Shortly before their mathematical elimination from the playoffs on 21 FEB 2009 (Game 60), the Thrashers must’ve seen the writing on the wall/figured out that rather shocking plot twist, as their play improved dramatically. In Games 55-82, Atlanta posted a very respectable record of 17-10-1, surprising several playoff-bound clubs who expected them to simply roll over.
The entire Colorado organization has known since 12 APR 2009 that the 2009-10 season would be dedicated to rebuilding. The only expectation the rest of the NHL had for the Avs coming into this season was for them to battle Phoenix for last place in the Western Conference. Now, six games in, the Colorado Avalanche have taken full advantage of the Freedom of Low Expectations and sit atop the West with a record of 4-1-1. In the weeks and months to come, it will be interesting to watch the Avs as either A) They start to believe they’ve got a shot at a playoff berth and increase the pressure on themselves accordingly, B) The rest of the NHL starts taking Colorado seriously, or C) Both.
Take me back to On Goal Analysis.