Blown Leads or Bouncing Back: what is better for long term team success?

Nothing is more exciting than when your team is down in the latter half of a game, and they mount a miraculous comeback to win. It is all adrenaline and hope as you watch the other team’s lead shrink and their fans losing their minds on Twitter. It is very much an opposite sensation for that other team; even if they win in regulation or overtime, the fans cannot accept it as a real win because the team blew the previous lead. It seems that blowing leads as the results of miraculous comebacks are in vogue recently, with every NHL doing at least one of those frequently. Now, how sustainable is it for a team to come back dramatically night after night? Is it better overall for the team in the long term if they are blowing leads than if they are constantly playing from behind? This question is often not addressed as comebacks are perceived as impressive and blown leads as horrific. But what is a more straightforward fix, and which is a better indicator for the team’s future success as a whole? That is what we are investigating. 

The Edmonton Oilers are not a good team, but they had a red hot start. However, in that start, they seldom scored the first goal. They almost always played from behind. There is a class or category of teams, the offensively dominant teams, which sometimes play from behind but still outscore their opponents. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Oilers, and Colorado Avalanche all belong to this category of teams. The Leafs, this year, have been better at not playing from behind, yet they, as of late, have been struggling to hold the lead. The Avalanche are the first NHL team to reach 30 wins, but lately, they have been mounting dramatic comebacks and playing behind in many games. Their game against the Bruins recently featured the Bruins blowing a 3-1 lead late in the third (I like to call it justice for Leafs fans). So which is a better indicator of long-term success? which is more sustainable? 

Blowing Leads: 

As a Leafs fan, I have a justifiable fear of blowing leads. However, while wins after blown leads can feel demoralizing, they are a pretty easy problem to remedy. Blown leads happen because of three factors 1) the defensive play throughout the lineup isn’t tight enough, 2) the team gets so comfortable in the lead that they take their foot off the gas 3) the goalie makes some mistakes. 

The most straightforward adjustment is to work on defensive play; if we are using the Leafs as an example, that would focus mainly on their blue line as many of the forwards have stepped up their play in their own zone. It is on the coach to get an excellent defensive performance out of their team and the GM to bring in pieces needed to replenish the blue line. This leads to the second easiest adjustment which is acquiring a new piece in net for safety purposes. To be clear, I am not suggesting this as an option for the Leafs, but it is a viable solution for other teams. Good goalies don’t fix everything, but they can cover up a lot.

 The final contributor is the hardest to overcome since it involves mindset. Frequently when teams blow a lead, it is after they start to take their foot off the gas. They were playing so well to start the game that surely the other team would not be able to challenge, so it inspires a comfort that rejects urgency. There is also the pressure; protecting a lead is a big responsibility and requires a high level of attention to detail, focus, and adjustments in the game. Finally, blowing a lead can be demoralizing, and it can be challenging for a team to bounce back and rally to win. Teams that manage to win despite blowing a lead have to show an incredible amount of mental resilience to not fold like a cheap tent. 

Dramatic Comebacks: 

Now dramatic comebacks are the other side of a blown lead. Comebacks are incredible to watch. Suddenly a team that has not been doing well all game rallies and destroys the opposing team, which has become too comfy in their lead. When you are a fan of the team mounting the comeback, it feels electric, like adrenaline rushing through your veins as the lead slowly gets smaller and smaller. It is incredible to watch, and when I’ve seen the Leafs pull it off, I celebrate like nothing else. Now, I will be a bit of a killjoy and bring up the problems with doing that too frequently. Falling behind first constantly is an issue of starting slow. If you don’t start the game on time and allow yourself to be scored on three times in the first two periods, that is a big problem, unless, of course, you come back and win. To facilitate this, you can change the goalie (like the Avs did against Toronto), have a momentum-shifting event (like a fight or power-play goal), or change up the lines (like Toronto did against the Red Wings), essentially something needs to shake the team up to inspire a comeback. The team also cannot deflate once they are behind. Many things have to go right for a comeback to occur, and one of the most significant factors in this is the strength of your offense and, of course, a little luck. 

Relying on a comeback win is not a good long-term strategy because comebacks are not always easy to mount, especially when the team is riding low PDO (puck luck) and the offensive production dries up. Even the best players have cold streaks, and when a team’s offense starts to go cold they can no longer outscore defensive lapses. PDO always regresses to the mean, so relying on outcomes that require it too much can be very unsustainable. The comeback depends on your team’s offense to work even more than average, and that can also be exhausting and hard to do night after night. The frequency of comeback wins can also indicate an underlying problem on defense or in the net that allowed the other team to mount a lead in the first place. Blowing leads have clear solutions, but it is hard to predict when and how comeback wins will happen. You can address most issues that lead to blown leads quickly, but you cannot prompt a comeback as simply. It takes incredible skill, mental toughness, and a little bit of luck. However, what can be addressed is what makes the team go down multiple points to start, thus making a comeback unneeded. Comeback wins are impressive but not sustainable and not by any means a green flag when it comes to long-term success.  

The mindset that comeback wins provide is probably the most significant and long-lasting upside. It provides the resilience and confidence never to wilt and to keep fighting. It provides the knowledge that you can still win no matter how bad it looks. That mindset is invaluable. Having at least one dramatic comeback win per season could be perfect for team morale but relying on it is not sustainable. 

Comeback wins and Blown Leads are two sides of the same coin; both are dramatic, yet even if the outcome of each game is the same, fan bases react very differently to each one. Blown leads have easy fixes on paper, and eking out a win after blowing a lead requires a level of resilience. Comeback wins are fun but unreliable. They provide a substantial morale boost but are not a sustainable style of play. So which leads to more success, I would be inclined to say that blown leads are not the end of the world and that a bunch of comeback wins does not make you a wagon.

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