Two Goal Curse
Examining the ‘most dangerous lead in hockey’
It’s been one of the biggest hockey superstitions for years.
Upon hearing it for the first time, some say its logic borders on insanity. Yet, some of the sport’s best pundits swear by it.
Regardless, the theory is out there: a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey.
This isn’t some new-age, analytic-driven idea. The concept has been around for generations, founded on player’s failure to contain their emotions and the psychology of the game.
“It’s just crazy how the mentality can change when you’re up two,” said Minot State hockey coach Wade Regier. “If you have a two-goal lead with about 10 minutes or less, it’s interesting how the team that’s up really decides to go into a bit of a shell and the team that’s behind turns it up a notch.”
Just the facts
Going through three different Minot-area team’s seasons last year, some were more prone to giving away leads than others.
For clarification, a blown two-goal lead in this study means a team led by two goals at some point and allowed the other team to tie the game. Failing to protect a two-goal lead does not necessarily mean the team lost the game.
The North American Hockey League’s Minot Minotauros gave up nine two-goal leads in 30 chances in a 64-game season and surrendered a one-goal lead 19 times. On the flip side, the Tauros also came back from a two-goal deficit on five different occasions.
“If it happens two or three times either way, you have that belief that you can come back from anything,” Minotauros coach Marty Murray said.
Minot State was the best local team at protecting leads, only blowing two in 28 chances in a 37-game season. MSU, which plays in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, surrendered a one-goal lead 11 times and came back from a two-goal deficit five times.
“As I teach goalies for a living, I have small goals in mind breaking the game down into five-minute increments,” said former MSU goalie and current Beavers assistant coach Wyatt Waselenchuk. “When I played, I never worried about anything other than just making the next save.”
As for the Minot High boys, the Magi blew a two-goal lead four times in 13 chances in a 27-game season. Minot never had a two-goal comeback and once blew a three-goal lead, but won the game in a shootout.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always heard that the biggest goal of the game was the one that gave you a three-goal lead,” said MHS co-head coach Jason Bennett. “In that game when we blew a three-goal lead, we took stupid penalties and never got the saves we needed. It was just the goofiest thing.”
Meanwhile, from the 2006 to 2013 seasons, NHL teams had two-goal leads disappear 15.6 percent of the time, while one-goal leads were given up at a 44.8 percent rate, according to an article from SB Nation.
Not everyone is a believer in two-goal lead myths.
“I think all that is just something coaches say to make sure players keep playing hard,” said Minot High boys hockey co-head coach John Grubb. “I’d always rather have a two-goal lead than a one-goal lead.”
But Regier, who helps local youth teams in the summer, says he constantly sees bad habits develop at a young age.
“I’ll see it in youth hockey all the time, if they’re up two goals, instinctively they’ll stop being aggressive and be conservative,” Regier said. “Instead of being aggressive and trying to attack a defender by being aggressive in the offensive zone, they decide to just dump the puck in uncharacteristically. You have to remind the players that even though you have a lead, you have to push forward.”
Professional hockey players aren’t immune to bad habits either. Before his coaching career, Murray played 261 games in the NHL with the Calgary Flames, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes, and the Los Angeles Kings.
In his time in the pros, he said if he was with an organization that blew a two-goal lead early in the season and it had a long-lasting impact.
“I’ve been on teams where if the other team gets a goal to bring it within one, everyone gets tired and squeezes their sticks,” Murray said. “I think it’s a mental thing and mindset that everybody has, good or bad.
“I think it’s one of those things that can get in your head and if you keep talking about it, you’re probably going to talk yourself into blowing a lead. It’s one of those things that is inevitable and it’s going to come up.”
The Tauros feature players from ages 16 to 20 on their 25-man roster. Sometimes when they find themselves losing by two, they can’t help bringing up the superstition as a pick-me-up.
“When we’re down by two goals, that’s one of the first things that comes out of the guys’ mouths,” Murray said. “So, I don’t know, it’s something where teams playing with a lead have a tendency to sit back and hope the clock runs out. But when you do that, I think you get into trouble. When you let your foot off the gas because you have a big lead, that’s when you play with fire.”
The blown two-goal lead that saved
As Murray mentioned, one blown two-goal lead can haunt a team for the remainder of its season. But to this day, Regier swears one disastrous performance helped Minot State win an ACHA national title in the 2012-2013 season.
In early December 2012, the Beavers were finally earning the national recognition their program so desperately craved. MSU, ranked No. 5 at the time, had a “prove it” road matchup against No. 9 Ohio University, which always boasted raucous crowds.
“That was really the first year Minot State hockey was really on the map and was seriously a contender,” Waselenchuk said. “We were never used to having that target on our back. But at that point and time, we knew teams were circling us on the calendar.”
Ohio couldn’t stop the Beavers’ high-powered offense for two periods and trailed 5-3 entering the final period.
“We were just all over them the entire game,” Regier said.
Thirteen minutes went by. The Beavers knew they were going to pick up a ranked win.
Then with seven minutes left, Ohio breathed life into the arena and cut the deficit to 5-4.
A few minutes later, Minot State took what Regier called a “stupid penalty.” The collapse was officially on when the Bobcats tied the game with 1:30 left, but it only got worse a minute later.
“I remember our guys got caught pinching with 30 seconds left and ended up beating us 6-5,” Regier said.
MSU was stunned. No one said a word after the final buzzer. The Beavers could only look up and hear the deafening roar of a packed house as a reminder of their failure.
Regier was devastated, and frankly, didn’t really know what to say to his team.
“I went in the locker room afterward and said ‘Guys, this is one of the worst losses I’ve ever had. We outshot them, we outplayed them. We were just soft in the third period,'” Regier said. “After that, I left the room. I didn’t scream or yell, I was just really disappointed because we had that game, then just let off on the gas.”
Regier went back to an empty bus, called a local pizza joint for a postgame meal, then waited. And waited. An hour went by without a single player coming back on the bus.
“I just was like “what the heck is going on here?’ I walked back in the rink trying to find them and couldn’t find anybody,” Regier said.
He eventually creaked the locker room door open and found several of his players yelling at each other.
“It wasn’t mass chaos or anything,” Regier said. “But one player would stand up and say ‘We need to do this, this and this,’ while another guy would do the same thing a few minutes later.”
The “Bobcat blunder” was one of the few games Waselenchuk didn’t play that season. But he certainly felt the impact of it.
“I think that was maybe the first time in my career I had a coach step out and just say ‘The bus will leave when you’re ready,” Waselenchuk said. “At that point, we weren’t used to losing. We had lost a couple games earlier that year, but we were just so taken aback by a loss in that fashion where we just collapsed.”
Another half hour went by. Regier had to call the pizza establishment and have a less-than-pleasant conversation of why it was taking them so long to pick up their food.
Finally, the team emerged from the locker room and boarded the bus, determined to avenge the loss the next night.
“I think that year we relied on our leaders so much,” Waselenchuk said. “We just knew we had a special group and afterward we just said we couldn’t ever take a night off. That leadership group put their foot down and said ‘Enough is enough, we don’t like this feeling very much.'”
Twenty-four hours later, the Beavers had another fast start and led Ohio 4-1 midway through the second period.
Then a MSU defensemen took “a lazy hooking penalty in the offensive zone.” Regier was already having flashbacks.
“I just thought ‘Here we go again,'” Regier said. “Are we really going to blow this again?”
MSU killed off the penalty, then caught a big break.
“The penalty box was on their side,” Regier said. “The defenseman that took the penalty jumped on the ice, immediately caught a pass and walked in on a breakaway and scored.
“He comes back to the bench and I tell him ‘You’re lucky you scored that goal, because otherwise you were coming off the ice and you were going to sit your ass down.'”
MSU beat the Bobcats 8-1 that night, but that was just the start of redemption. The Beavers didn’t lose a game the rest of the year, winning 23 straight en route to winning an ACHA Division I national title.
“Our boys ran with that the rest of the year and always said ’22 is a fluke, but 23 is a streak,'” Regier said. “It was all because of that damn blown two-goal lead in that chaotic rink.”