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Are Two-Goal Leads Actually Dreaded?

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There's a belief in some hockey circles that a two-goal lead is the old "dreaded" two-goal lead. But do the facts back that up?

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, the Blues aren't playing for almost another full week. So we're putting some more stories that ran in the Game Time paper here on the Game Time website. It's very meta. Anyway, this is a column that ran earlier this month looking at the axiom of the "dreaded" two-goal lead. The author is our friend on Twitter Kevin Lorenz, a former writer about the Blues at InsideSTL and producer on local sports radio. Don't bad mouth him in the comments, he could sue you in a few years.

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By Kevin Lorenz
@KevinLorenz

A simple Google search for blown two-goal leads in the NHL will yield almost infinite headlines. In January of 2012, then-Blues defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo quipped, "a two-goal lead is the worst lead in hockey" after his Blues erased a 3-1 deficit against the Edmonton Oilers en route to a 4-3 victory.

Colaiacovo isn't alone in his sentiments. The so-called "Two Goal Leads Theory" is as pervasive among the most superstitious within hockey spheres as not talking to a pitcher during a no-hitter in baseball. The most ardent followers of Two-Goalism will swear that the minute a team gains a quick two-goal advantage, that team is doomed to suffer an embarrassing loss. Most of us reserve those thoughts until after the two-goal lead has evaporated; we'd rather torment ourselves after the fact for having the audacity to think that the Two-Goal Leads Theory was nonsense.

While fans may swear by the mythology surrounding the bad omen of a two-goal lead, the reality of it all lends a healthy amount of skepticism to the debate. According to an article on Stattrackblog.com, teams from 2006-2013 saw 15.6 percent of their two-goal leads evaporate, compared to 44.8 percent of one-goal leads. As expected, teams lost only 4.5 percent of their three-goal leads. But interestingly, while over the relatively large sample size of seven seasons we see the intuitive result. In a small sample size the illogical fears of hockey fans can become more prevalent. Through the first 28 games of the last postseason, 11 teams blew two-goal leads, or a more significant 39 percent of the time. In the Blues' own series against the Blackhawks it happened twice, though both teams managed to win the game after losing their two-goal lead; the Blues in Game 2, and the Hawks in Game 5.

The two-point lead isn't unique just to singular games. It can even rear its ugly head in the form of a 2-0 series lead in the playoffs. The Blues for instance have lost their last two 2-0 series leads seemingly as fast as they were built. The last two years of postseason indignities have added to the anxieties of Blues fans. However, blowing the two-game lead in a playoff series is another event that while traumatic and noteworthy, is also rare. Playoff teams have taken a 2-0 series lead 298 times, but have only gone on to lose the series 42 times (just 14 percent).

We've established that the reality of the situation doesn't necessarily gel with the mythology surrounding the two-goal lead. Meanwhile the belief endures. The fact remains that teams do blow two-goal leads. If every team plays on any given night, you can expect that nearly five of them will lose a two-goal lead to their opponent. Such a result understandably sticks with that team. The players may find themselves wondering, "How could such a seemingly large lead disappear?" There may be three prominent potential reasons.

Letting Your Foot off the Pedal

Whether intentionally, coaches shift into a prevent-style defense with a lead, or subconsciously, it's human nature over a long season to let your guard down with a lead, advanced metrics suggest that teams actually begin to allow more shots against once they attain a two-goal lead. Dating back to 2007, NHL teams on average see their Fenwick ratings (the ratio of the number of unblocked shots directed toward your net vs. the number of unblocked shots you direct toward your opponent's net) drop to just 44 percent according to the now-defunct ExtraSkater.com. This suggests that the trailing team will actually possess the puck more than the leading team once down by two goals. That's a huge turnaround and goes exactly against how the leading team built said lead.

The Panic That Sets In

Common sense suggests that there can be a sense of complacency that comes from having a two-goal lead. As a player, you know that you can make two mistakes that end up in your net before the game is tied. Reinforcing that complacency is the idea that not all mistakes end up leading to goals against. But, suddenly when the lead drops from two to one, it's very apparent that one more mistake can tie the game. The mental effect of that realization can be jarring. Think Keanu Reeves' famous "Quicksand" speech from The Replacements:

"You're playing and you think everything is going fine. Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can't move... you can't breathe... because you're in over your head. Like quicksand."

The Natural Variance of Professional Sports

The difference between teams in the National Hockey League while significant isn't really as great as the standings may make it seem. The best teams aren't consistently blowing out the worst teams by large margins.

Good teams will beat other good teams by small margins most of the time. The conditions that lead to a quick two-goal lead simply will not last for very long. If the Blues take a quick two-goal lead tonight, it's not likely that the Sharks will continue to play such a weak game; they will adjust. It's possible, maybe even probable, that upon that adjustment the quality of play that led to the two-goal lead may not actually be good enough to beat the opponent who has since gotten its game plan back on track. The leading team will have to make a positive adjustment as well to maintain that lead.

So the two-goal lead isn't a recipe for disaster. But it's also not bulletproof. It can be the turning point in a game or just another step toward a dominating victory.