Handicapping Game Sevens
by Trevor Whenham - 04/23/2008
There were three game sevens in the first round of the NHL playoffs, and there will inevitably be more in coming rounds. The NBA playoffs are also under way, and they always feature some great seventh games - though perhaps not in this first round because it isn't shaping up to be particularly competitive. As I sat down last night to watch two consecutive game sevens on the ice I started to think about the rules that go into handicapping the ultimate must-win scenarios. As I did that, here are the five rules that came to mind. Not surprisingly, most of these are pretty basic and straight forward:
Experience matters - The mythology of game sevens is so big, and the pressure is so intense, that it can be absolutely overwhelming the first time a player faces one. All other things being equal, then, it only makes sense to pick the team that has more players that have been in meaningful, intense playoffs situations before. It's no fluke that San Antonio keeps coming through in difficult times. This is especially true when it comes to franchise players. If a team is built around a young player who has never been in the playoff spotlight before then the team is at a disadvantage in game sevens. LeBron James lost badly in his first game seven, and Alexander Ovechkin lost his first game seven last night.
Home crowd is huge - Home court or home ice is absolutely crucial. Obviously. This struck me yet again as I watched both Montreal and San Jose win their playoff series this week. Both teams took a while to find their legs, but as soon as they got some momentum built up the crowd went absolutely insane and their opponents crumbled and quit. That's not to say that the visiting team can't win - Philadelphia beat Washington on the road. Even in that game, though, Washington's crowd lifted them to a comeback that forced overtime, and anything can happen in extra time. In almost every case the home team is the heavy favorite in game seven, and they should be. Don't necessarily shy away from picking the visitors, but make sure that you have a good reason to do it.
Does one team seem to want it more? - It seems hard to believe, but time and again we can see a case where one team seems to want to win more than the other one does. This was clearly the case when Montreal played Boston or San Jose beat Calgary this week. There are a million things that go into that reality, but one big one is that the winners in both of those cases probably came into the series with a stronger expectation of winning and going on, so they had a more positive mindset going into the final game. Or maybe they were just more scared of the consequences of a loss. Either way, if you can play amateur psychologist for a while you can often find the team that wants it more.
When in doubt, pick the better team - This should be obvious, but it is often overlooked. It's obviously not always true, but more often than not the better team is going to win over the course of seven games. In most cases, and especially in the first round, it isn't hard to figure out which team is better - often much better. I don't mean better right now. I mean better over the course of the long season. Too often I find myself, or see others, picking the lesser team for all sorts of reasons that seem good at the time. Often as not those picks backfire. It's a case of not over-thinking a situation. This approach worked flawlessly in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Montreal and San Jose were both much higher in the standings than Boston and Calgary, and they both won the ultimate game of their series fairly easily. Philadelphia was a No. 6 seed and Washington was the No. 3, but the Capitals only had their spot because they won their division. Philly had more points, and they earned them against a much tougher division than Washington did, so the Flyers also prevailed while being the better team. Over the last two years before this season, the better team is 4-1 in the NBA in game sevens, and 3-1 in the NHL.
Ignore the last six games - If a series has gone to seven games then it has gone through endless ebbs and flows. At some point both teams have looked unbeatable, and both teams have looked terrible. I am a firm believer that game sevens exist in isolation. Everything that has happened before doesn't factor into what happens in the final game. In all three cases in the NHL this year the team that won the last game had lost the game before it, and Philly and Montreal had both lost two in a row. They didn't have the momentum, but momentum rarely carries into game seven because there is so much on the line, and so many other factors in play. Another classic example of how game seven is unlike the others is Jeremy Roenick of San Jose. He had had a terrible series against Calgary. He had been shut down completely by the Calgary defense and he was looking old. It got so bad that he was benched for game six. In game seven he looked 25 again. He scored two goals, added two assists, and was the biggest reason San Jose had won. There was no hint that that would happen in the earlier games.