Smelly Socks, Beards, and Streaks

April 18, 2013

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If you pay any attention to hockey whatsoever, you know that the Chicago Blackhawks had a historically strong start this year, obliterating a particular NHL record as they opened the abbreviated 2013 season. The last three teams to start out this well took home the Stanely Cup.

The Blackhawks charge the record books

The Blackhawks set a new record for what’s called the “season-opening point streak.” A “point streak” is not quite a win streak, because it also includes games that are a tie after 3 periods, even if the team goes on to lose in overtime or a shootout.

Why is it called a “point” streak? For any game that does not result in a regulation loss, a team is rewarded at least one point in the standings: one point for tying in regulation but losing in overtime or a shootout, or two points for any win. The points are used to determine which teams go on to the playoffs. Hence, a “point streak,” and one starting at the beginning of the season is a “season-opening point streak.”

People started noticing the Blackhawks’ season-opening point streak after their February 15 win against the San Jose Sharks. This advanced their record to 11-0-3, for a point streak of 14 games, tying them for third place for best-ever season-opening point streak with the 1944 Montreal Canadiens. In the 1943-1944 season the Canadiens established this record and went on to win the Stanley Cup

Over the next three games, the Blackhawks surpassed the 1985 Edmonton Oilers, who broke the record with a 15-game season-opening point streak in the 1984-1985 season and won the 1985 Stanley Cup, and the 2007 Anaheim Ducks, who set the current record in the 2006-2007 season with 16, and again won the 2007 Stanley cup.

The Blackhawks continued to build their new record for eight more games, finally losing 6-2 against the Colorado Avalanche on March 8 after 24 games without a loss. The past three teams to set this record won the cup, and the Blackhawks didn’t just break the old record. They smashed it. Does this mean that the Blackhawks are going to bring the Stanley Cup home to Chicago again in 2013?

Now, any data junkie worth her datapoints knows that three is far too small a sample size to make a decent predictive claim about the season’s outcome. And anyone with their head screwed on correctly probably suspects that there is no magic threshhold for the season-opening point streak that will cosmically guarantee ultimate victory. But, using the full dataset of NHL wins and losses stretching back to 1942, we can see historically how teams have done depending on their opening season point streak.  

What we made

We took data on every hockey game from the start of the Original Six era through the last full season and calculated the season-opening point streak for every team in every season. If you’re curious, that comes out to 1,155 team-seasons and 45,011 hockey games played between 1942 and 2012.

We also took note of how each team fared at the end of the season and coded their playoff outcome in one of six categories - one for missing the playoffs, four for getting eliminated at each possible round of the playoffs, and one for going all the way and winning the Stanley Cup.

Finally, we put all of this information in the widget at the link so that you can explore the data and decide for yourself whether the season-opening win streak has a metaphysical effect on Stanley Cup victory.

Go check it out, here.

So what is the point of all this?

Have we just gone to a lot of trouble to show you that better teams are better? Not really. The Blackhawks have not merely put up a strong number for this statistic: their performance was the best ever. And our data show that there is, to date, a nonlinearity in the outcomes of teams with very high season opening point streaks. This is best illustrated in the line graph at the top right of the widget. As the point streak cutoff increases, the chance of winning the Stanley Cup increases, smoothly at first, and then rocketing straight upwards around 12. This graph changes slightly depending on the year range selected, but for all seasons, the probability of winning the cup at 12 games is 50%, at 13 games is 80%, and (as we already know), all teams achieving 14 or greater consecutive point-scoring games at the beginning of the season went on to win it all.

contributors to this post

headshot of Laurie Skelly
headshot of Dean Malmgren
headshot of Mike Stringer
headshot of Aaron Wolf