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Going Streaking?

08/31/2010 at 1:09pm EDT

There are a lot of very good reasons to peg the Ottawa Senators at 10th in the East this year. Can the geritocracy of Alfredsson, Gonchar, and Kovalev be dominant over the full course of an 82-game schedule? Is Peter Regin for real? Have Michalek and Kovalev’s injuries fully healed? Will anyone on Ottawa’s defense corps hit anything this year?

Does Ottawa need to buy Pascal Leclaire a Popemobile to ensure his safety off-ice?

Also casting a long shadow over Ottawa’s chances at making the playoffs is the improvement of other teams in the East. While I may have my doubts about the various alchemies being employed in the Southeast Division and New Jersey, I think it is fair to say that the East is now beginning to resemble the West in that the distance between the eighth seed and those on the outside looking in will be much closer than at any time in recent memory.

Why, then, with so many meaningful outstanding questions would the Hockey News focus on their 11-game winning streak last year as evidence that the Senators just don’t measure up? It’s a line that’s been casually thrown around over the course of this lazy August, and it’s a disappointing failure in critical thought. Let’s be clear: using a prolonged stretch of winning as proof that said team can’t win requires admirable mental gymnastics.

On the surface, the argument looks fine: if the Senators didn’t win 11 straight games in late January / early February, they would have missed the playoffs. Ok, but any team in the East with the sole exception of Washington would have missed the playoffs if you subtracted 22 points. So the fact that the streak was 11 games long isn’t the key to the argument: the Senators would have still made the playoffs with three fewer victories. The argument that it is meaningful that the wins were consecutive doesn’t really hold water either. Clearly, they could have won, say, 4 in a row on two different occasions and still made it to the dance. Alternatively, had they just chopped one game off one of their brutal five-game losing streaks, the length of the winning streak becomes irrelevant.

What this line of “reasoning” boils down to, as bad arguments so often do, are the “intangibles”: the unlikelihood of an 11-game winning streak, the idea that the streaking team has captured “lightning in a bottle”, that “all the stars just lined up”, etc. It’s the same error in judgement as thinking that the odds of a quarter coming up heads instead of tails on the eleventh straight throw is infinitesimally small. It’s not. It’s still precisely 50%. In the same way, each game is a new game, and while the dynamics of the previous game can sometimes spill over, there are still two teams who need to battle it out. An 11- game winning streak isn’t a product of chance.

If anything, an 11-game winning streak is evidence that a team has the ability to take it to a higher level. Getting hot in January certainly doesn’t predict playoff success, but an impressive streak like the one built by the Sens last year shows that, under the right conditions, magic is at least possible. We have seen the power of that magic made manifest during the last playoffs as both the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers showed what can happen when a team is capable of becoming more than the sum of its parts at the right moment.

If the Hockey News wanted to argue that the Sens will win fewer games this year than they did last year they could have easily done so by addressing any of the outstanding questions surrounding this year’s squad. Far from being a reason to dismiss a clearly improved team that was the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference last year as a playoff contender, however, I would submit that the 11-game winning streak built by the Ottawa Senators last year makes a compelling argument for them as the real dark horse of the East.

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