On Wednesday night, in the first game of the playoffs, the Boston Bruins beat the Ottawa Senators 2-1 just as the game was heading to overtime.  Charlie McAvoy played 19:13 of five-on-five minutes in that game, second only to Zdeno Chara.

It was his first ever NHL game.  He had the highest Corsi For percentage of any defender who played the whole game.

When Boston chose to take their first rounder from last summer, burn a year of his ELC, and use him in the playoffs to replace the injured Torey Krug, that was a bold move.  When the coach put him out there is a top four role, that was even bolder.  When Colin Miller left the game with an injury and McAvoy became the go-to man to play top pairing minutes, that was the boldest.

You get credit when those moves work out.  What you get when they don’t is why moves like that don’t happen very often.

Mike Babcock is a different sort of coach to Boston’s Bruce Cassidy.  Babcock has more job security than perhaps any coach in the modern NHL.  Cassidy has none; he still has the word interim in his title.  Babcock can do whatever he wants with his defenders.  At least for now.

Babcock’s problem was an injury to Nikita Zaitsev.  Unlike Cassidy, he didn’t have a top draft pick who’d conveniently finished his college season.  McAvoy was ready to turn pro with one WJC gold medal around his neck as his reward for a youth spent in the rink. Babcock had Alexey Marchenko and Martin Marincin.  He also had Roman Polak who was playing injured.

Martin Marincin got the nod.  He played 65 games last year for the Leafs but has only drawn in 25 times this season.  Babcock has been blunt that the issue has been Marincin’s play when he is in the game and that he’d expected Marincin to play the whole year.  As a left-shooting defender who can play the right side with ease, he had two chances to get in the lineup: outplay Matt Hunwick or Roman Polak.

Marincin hasn’t outplayed anyone this season.  One of his biggest issues, and it was apparent last year too, is that he does not seem to possess any game management skills at all.  He plays as if on autopilot, doing the same things when it’s 3-0 in the first period as when it’s tied up late in the third.

This seeming inability to recognize the moment is upon him to step it up undercuts his valuable skills: passing, puck moving, and a tendency to just get the puck out of the defensive zone that the Leafs really need.

Which brings us to this:

The video gives you a very clear look at Marincin taking a hack at the puck to ring it up the boards.  Which, we should all admit, players on all NHL teams do all the time.  You might want them to do it less in overtime in the playoffs.  But it wasn’t the rarest of rare events, and to sink to scapegoating and blaming that one moment for the loss is to fall into “big mistake” analysis.  We all should have learned years ago not to do this.

Tyler Dellow has taken down his original essay on the concept of the eye-test, the big mistake, and how you sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees.  But our cousins at Arctic Ice Hockey discussed it a few years back:

One of my favourite articles comes from Tyler Dellow, The Big Mistake. He opens up with this doozie of a quote:

“If someone asked me what I think the biggest failing of the eyeball test is, I’d respond that it’s the emphasis on the big mistake. There are gigabytes of information contained in a hockey game. So much information that I think it’s difficult for anyone to take it in and organize it rationally. The way that our brains deal with that is by focusing on the big mistake.”

I would expand this hypothesis even further; the biggest failing to the eyeball test is human nature and its propensity to look for direct causality and responsibility. The tendency to look for a target to blame or extol is not limited to defensive contributions.

I call it Twitter plus/minus.  You see a goal, you look at who was on the ice, you pick a guilty party, and done.  You know whose fault it all was, and all that’s left is to Tweet that out.

The truth is mistakes happen all over the ice and all during the game and most of them don’t have any obvious negative consequences.  Hockey is a game of mistakes—most shots miss, turnovers abound, and a lot of passes never connect.  It’s a game of managing risk, not eliminating it.  And you get into overtime in the first place because you haven’t won the game in the first 60 minutes when perhaps you had the chances.

When faced with the loss of one of his top four defenders, Babcock used his remaining five regulars and Marincin in a way designed to manage the risk of exposing the weakest of the group.  The five-on-five time on ice looked like this:

  • Jake Gardiner - 25:16
  • Matt Hunwick - 22:49
  • Morgan Rielly - 22:36
  • Roman Polak - 20:31
  • Connor Carrick - 14:04
  • Martin Marincin - 12:55/

More specifically, in the third period, Rielly and Hunwick alternated shifts with Gardiner and his partner (either Carrick or Polak) almost to the exclusion of anyone else.  Marincin played a few shifts with Carrick, but they dwindled to nothing as the period wore on and the Leafs were trying to hold off the Capitals’ push.

This was the shape of the game, with the dark line being the score-adjusted Corsi differential:

The Leafs had withstood the pressure, pulled even again, but couldn’t score.  And by the time overtime began, the bench couldn’t get any shorter.  Polak, remember, is not anywhere near 100 percent, and he was on the ice with Gardiner, who played almost the whole overtime, only through the first couple of shifts.

Rielly played all the minutes Gardiner didn’t, and they need partners.  At the end, at the very end, Gardiner and Carrick gave way to Rielly and Marincin. It could have just as easily been Hunwick.

But that last shift was not the whole of Marincin’s performance, and it’s the whole game that will decide who plays in the next one.

“He’s [Marincin] gotta decide whether he wants to play in the second game . . . he’s gotta play good,” Babcock said flatly

For the second game, if Zaitsev isn’t back to playing shape, the choices are Marchenko, Steve Oleksy (whose only NHL playoff experience came with the Capitals) or Marincin again.  There is no McAvoy out there, no super prospect ready to step in. Not yet.