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Joe Thornton and Justin Williams: Hockey's Two Types of Heroes

The hockey world's bipolar reaction to the performances of these two in Game 7 Tuesday night were indicative of the two schools of thought regarding the NHL playoffs, and they're both somewhat flawed.

Jeff Gross

For one group of hockey fans, Joe Thornton has always been a choker; Justin Williams has been clutch. For another group, Thornton has been a poster-child for consistent excellence; Williams has gotten lucky.

It's a representative example of a debate that has been raging in professional sports since long before Michael Lewis' Moneyball hit the big screen or even the book shelves.

I began as a hockey purist.

My earliest memory of Thornton was as the offensive leader of the 2004 Boston Bruins, who blew a 3-1 series lead and wound up losing to the Montreal Canadiens. Thornton, who had 73 points that year - sandwiched in the middle of 101 and 125-point campaigns - was held scoreless in the seven games, and as a young Montrealer, I was all too willing to join in the ridicule. Thornton was a choker. He was a guy who would never win the big game. He didn't know how to raise his game when it counted.

Of course, I was an impressionable prepubescent hockey newb. I regurgitated most of my opinions from panelists on TV shows and radio talk show hosts. I thought that chemistry trumped individual skill, and that there was a concrete explanation behind every slump, every loss, and every missed opportunity.

12-year old me would also have looked at a game like Tuesday night and gaped at the legend that is Justin Williams. The Kings winger has now scored in his first four-career game 7s - no one has ever done that before - and played hero on this occasion after not recording a point in any of the first six games of the series. 12-year old me would have ranted about how my beloved Canadiens had no such players, and that they wouldn't win until they did. Poise over talent. Size over skill. Timing over consistency.

But about a year ago I changed sides.

As I started writing about hockey, I began to understand the flaws in only looking at the game that way. As I was introduced to advanced statistics, the game became more of a stat sheet. Rather than appreciate an accomplishment, I would look to justify it in the greater picture. Sam Gagner's 8-point game. Nazem Kadri's torrid pace. Jaroslav Halak's amazing run. They were all luck. The fact that they weren't sustainable somehow lessened the achievement in my mind. And because of this, I stopped appreciating hockey for what it was, and starting condemning it for what it wasn't.

As those with an understanding of statistics like Corsi, Fenwick, and PDO know, the idea of "luck" gets tossed around as an explanatory metric. Anything that isn't possession-based is luck. If your team gets great goaltending or your best player scores on 30 percent of his shots, you got lucky. But I've always felt some resentment at the idea that percentage-driven results are equivalent to luck. I didn't really understand why until I read an article by Ellen Etchingham over at The Score. I realized that while the statistics I was being shown were in fact predictive, they weren't always being interpreted the right way.

"The problem is that luck, in the common tongue, is not the same thing as unsustainability. Calling something unsustainable is purely descriptive: based on the evidence of the percentages, it cannot be expected to persist. Calling it lucky or random is adding a value judgment. Luck implies not just a result but a cause, and that cause is the chaos of the universe. Luck is the opposite of skill."

Players who go on hot streaks aren't just experiencing lucky bounces or poor goaltending, they look noticeably more involved; they hit their spots. Generally speaking, they actually play better, and you can see it. This is skill that is put on metaphorical steroids, and although it's as unpredictable as it is fleeting, it is also the result of choices made by the players. They get into good positions, they feed off their own confidence, they make the right decisions, and their persistence pays off. Yes, regression tells us that eventually shooting percentages will even out and goalies will regress to their true talent, but alleviating credit for hot streaks from the players themselves is an unfortunate oversight.

Seeing the Canadiens lose in five games to a lower seed this year was a sobering experience because by all measurable accounts, Montreal was the better team. But looking only at predictive metrics and general trends means missing half the picture. Yes, Tomas Plekanec is a hero for playing extremely tough minutes year after year and continuing to put up points and shut down the opposition. But Jean-Gabriel Pageau is also a hero for scoring a playoff hat trick as a rookie.

Alex Ovechkin was a hero in 2010 for winning virtually every individual award a forward can win, but so was Halak for shutting him and his teammates down for three games. So was Jacques Martin for instilling a system that gave his team a chance to win. So were his players for sacrificing their bodies time and time again to make it work. They are two very different kinds of heroes, and they are reflections of two very different aspects of the sport.

"Hockey is a little bit schizophrenic in this way. It holds two mutually contradictory values, the short-term and the long-term, and this is reflected in the structure of the season itself. The regular season is constructed to prize durable, sustainable talents, to average out streaks and slumps and give the favorable position to the most consistent teams. But then that reward is followed up by a tournament of ridiculously small sample sizes where any little surge of awesomeness, from anyone, no matter what their true talent level, might make the difference between a Cup ring and a golf cart. The game is designed, in the end, to give out its highest prizes based on unsustainable streaks."

And that's just it. As much as my 12-year old self wanted to believe that the NHL playoffs were an ultimate meritocracy, they are anything but. Hot streaks can strike even the most unlikely of targets. All that a player can do is work hard and try to make every shift his best. Sometimes it will pay off and sometimes it won't. Some players will have to bear the disappointment of 14 failed runs at the Cup, and some will score five goals in game 7s, and win it all with two different franchises.

Joe Thornton is a hero for being one of the most productive NHL players over the past decade and working as hard as anyone despite continually falling short in the playoffs. But Justin Williams is also a hero for being maybe the best game 7 player of all time. It may not be a sustainable skill, but it is an achievement.

It is only in recognizing both types of heroes and respecting each type of performance, as I have grown to, that one can both understand and appreciate the NHL playoffs at the same time. It's worth it, because as much as certain writers want to belittle them, oh what a spectacle they are.