On Tuesday November 18, 2014 the Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Nashville Predators 9-2. I know this because I live in the GTA. The next day, the sports media in the area was almost unlistenable. “Carlyle likely to be fired after this weekend.” “Carlyle has lost the room.” “What kind of Captain is Phaneuf?” yadda….yadda…yadda. Admittedly losing 9-2 to any team in hockey is an embarrassing situation. One of the more common idioms for a blowout of that sort is that the team, “lost by a touchdown.” It was a fantastic loss in every sense, but one without the benefit of a crystal ball. If anyone would have known then what they know now, would anyone have really been so upset. As of Sunday December 14, 2014, the Toronto Maple Leafs are on the hottest winning streak in the NHL at 8-1-1. Funny how a month changes things.
A team on a winning streak is a thing to behold. Everything is going right. Every pass is crisp. Every hit is punishing. Most shots seem to go in. The refs seem to be on your side. Much like in life, when things are going good, they are going really good. As I mentioned earlier, living in the GTA or, ahem, Leafs Nation, it would be hard pressed not to be able to tell right now that things are going well for the Leafs. Even some of their more cantankerous critics are having to admit that this is a team with speed and depth. I particularly like to focus on the Leafs in this case because with the Leafs and the media that follows them, there is a gigantic magnifying glass on the team at all times. Actually, around the time of the 9-2 loss (and the non-salute), the Leafs were already being relegated to the also-rans of the Toronto area. The Raptors are hotter than they have ever been, and it seemed like every radio and TV station were making sure that we all know that at least Toronto had one winning team. Now, a month later, much of those same stations have become almost apologetic, and are now marveling a the team presently before us. I really find it interesting how quickly that can change things.
During the 2007-2008 regular season. The Ottawa Senators went on a streak for the ages. They came out of the gate at 16-4-0. They had 32 points by November 21 of that year. This also being a year after they went to the Stanley Cup Final. I remember at the time seeing the Senators on every Sports Centre. You could tell they were a team full of confidence. Everything was going right, and it seemed as if they had shaken off anything that would resemble a Stanley Cup Final hangover. It was beginning to look like the Senators had officially arrived.
Then they went 18-22-4 from January until April. Their record at the end of the season was 43-31-8. They finished with 94 points which was enough to get them into the playoffs. Then they lost to Pittsburgh in 4 straight. The team was a shadow of itself by the time the playoffs had come. Which supports that winning and losing can be just as infectious. Much like when a team is winning, when they are losing; every pass is a miss, every hit is soft, every shot misses the net, the refs never make a call in your favour. The term that seems to get thrown around the most with losing streak is that players are “holding their sticks to tight.”
Much like winning, losing is a state of mind. Players seem to almost will themselves into bad and sloppy plays. Players have been traded because of losing streaks. Coaches get fired. Yet there is no supporting quantifiable reason as to why a team will themselves into winning/losing. It really does seem to just happen.
So where this really gets us is to the fact that we cannot get too caught up in the streaks that happen within a season. Usually when a team starts underperforming, that seems to be when the sharks start circling. “Fire the coach, trade the players.” Really when you look at a season as a whole, it is usually the sum of its parts that end up dictating how successful a season really was. Sure the winning and losing streaks can be equally exhilarating/infuriating, but that’s also a big part of what makes games exciting. There was once a film by Oliver Stone, Any Given Sunday, that through the title and plot suggested that anything can happen at any time. That is a big part of the thrill of the game. The Philadelphia Flyers went on a 10 game winless streak during the 2007-2008 season. This was once season removed from one of the worst in franchise history. On the 11th game they played Buffalo. The game went to a shootout. On the last chance that would have won the game, Danny Briere, former Sabre skated down the ice and put one past his old teammate Ryan Miller. It broke the slump and helped the Flyers to right the ship enough to get into the playoffs. At that moment, when the slump was broken, I remember feeling a sense of relief. The Flyers were in fact going to win games again this season. That moment is a big part of what can make sports in general so compelling. The fact that anything can happen, but you don’t know for sure what will.