By Dan Falloon, sports reporter
The Washington Capitals didn’t rewrite the record books with their recent 14-game winning streak, but that doesn’t mean the book of statistics shouldn’t undergo a little editing.
That’s because in the “new” NHL, which came out of the lockout year of 2004-05, all games have a winner and a loser—and so wins are a lot easier to come by.
Certainly going one-sixth of the season without a loss is an impressive run, and the Capitals were only slightly aided by the new rules. The first game of the streak was a 5-4 shootout win over the Florida Panthers on Jan. 13, meaning Washington’s win streak would hold up as a 13-gamer in the pre-shootout era and still the fourth-longest in league history.
Acknowledging history is a major part of being a sports fan. It’s why there are statues of Habs’ greats outside Montreal’s Bell Centre, why teams retire numbers, and why N.Y. Ranger fans still curse Denis Potvin’s name when the cross-town Islanders visit Madison Square Garden.
Never mind that Potvin last played in the NHL in 1988.
And as a part of that, records and stats still loom large.
Baseball hall-of-famer Cal Ripken Jr. would have been inducted whether he had his iron man streak of 2,632 consecutive games or not, but the streak certainly defined his legacy.
The hallowed status of records is why many baseball fans are passionate about inserting asterisks next to the names of proven steroid users—if those players aren’t stricken from the books completely.
From a rules standpoint, a player’s ability to chase Ripken’s record hasn’t been affected. The definition of what constitutes a consecutive game hasn’t been changed.
Ripken started and played at least five innings in every one of those games, and an major-league game becomes official after the fifth.
A player needs to do that 2,633 times in a row to break the record. Simple.
But in the Capitals’ case, the NHL has redefined what it means to win. It’s almost like if baseball started to count pinch-hit appearances as part of a run of consecutive games.
It just wouldn’t be fair to Ripken.
So how do we analyze the Caps’ recent streak in relation to the streak-setting precedent?
On the one hand, there are those 13-straight games that Washington won without the aid of a shootout, if the old standards are applied. It stands four games short of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 1992-93 record of 17 wins in a row.
But what if old streaks are analyzed under the new rules?
For example, what about looking at the Philadelphia Flyers’ 35-game unbeaten streak in 1979-80 as a “points streak” instead. The Caps had a 15-game point streak snapped with last Thursday’s 6-5 loss to the Ottawa Senators.
Washington had lost in overtime to Montreal the night before, picking up the single point for the loss.
Since the Flyers were shellacked in their games on either side of the unbeaten run, it means neither of those matches went to overtime, so the modern rules for a point in an overtime loss would not have lengthened the streak.
As well, calling it a “point streak” takes away some benefit of the doubt for the Flyers, who tied 10 games in that 35-game span.
As dominant as that team was, advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup final, in all likelihood Philadelphia would have lost at least one of the shootouts if they played under today’s rules.
Even the 2005-06 Dallas Stars, with shootout sensation Jussi Jokinen, went 12-1 that year.
But the Flyers still would have received a point, which puts the impressive Philadelphia record on an even playing field with what could be accomplished in the current NHL.
Still, even with all these tweaks in definition, comparing apples to apples just isn’t totally possible. The game has changed too much since the Penguins went one-fifth of the season without a loss.
With the new obstruction rules implemented after the lockout of 2004-05, the style of play has opened up (or re-opened up, as the case may be). And equipment has evolved, with nearly every NHL player now able to make a slapshot seem like a thunderbolt from Zeus thanks to composite sticks.
Those are impossible to account for in the record books, but every era evolves, there are more and more people who play and watch the game, resulting in new strategies and ideas and, ultimately, fresh ways to play—and to win.
In that sense, even trying to compare one season to the next on an objective level is futile.
But the spirit in which I’m looking at it is trying to look at the best teams of this era (like this season’s Capitals) against the best teams of past eras (like the Penguins of the early ’90s).
And being the stathead that I am, those concrete numbers count for something.
Playing in the “dead puck” era before the lockout, where the Art Ross Trophy winner didn’t even top 100 points in three of the five seasons leading up to the work stoppage, is a little different. It’s still possible to look at the top scorers of each year and determine, “Wow, Martin St. Louis was dynamite in 2004,” even though he recorded the lowest total of any Art Ross winner since the 1967-68 season.
It’s just a matter of putting accomplishments in context, which can be done in cases like St. Louis and Jarome Iginla because the stat sheet says they were the top offensive players in years where defence ruled.
Sure, it was harder to score, but it wasn’t because of the definition of a goal.
The Capitals’ streak will just read “14 games, Jan. 13, 2010 at Florida to Feb. 7, 2010 vs. Pittsburgh.”
The first win may note that it was in a shootout, but future generations of fans may look at the streak and not understand that there was a time before a shootout-aided win, where the Penguins had to fight to avoid even a tie to keep their streak alive while the Caps were afforded the second chance.
By Dan Falloon, sports reporter