The Chicago Blackhawks are in the midst of one of the most impressive streaks in recent sports history, but we understand if you're not aware of it. This is hockey, after all, a sport that does its level best to turn off both hardcore and casual fans. But take a moment to appreciate Chicago's streak of games without a regulation or overtime loss – 24 games and counting to start the 2013 season – that actually extends all the way back to March, 2012. This kind of sustained excellence doesn't come along often in any sport.
Here's what's happening with the Blackhawks, why it's so important and what to watch for next:
SINCE THE BLACKHAWKS LAST LOST A GAME …
• The planet had just a few months left, according to the Mayans …
• LeBron James was still just an overrated wannabe without an NBA championship or a gold medal …
• There was no way Adrian Peterson or Peyton Manning would be as good upon their returns from injury …
• Lance Armstrong was still a Tour de France champion …
• Nobody knew what "Call Me Maybe," "Gangnam Style" or "Harlem Shake" were …
• Ben Affleck still hadn't shaken off the J.Lo stigma once and for all …
• We didn't know who McKayla Maroney was, much less whether she was tough to impress …
• The idea that a man named "Bubba" could win the Masters was laughable …
• Mitt Romney was thinking he might need to start packing to move soon …
• "The Avengers" was probably going to be a total bomb …
• Manti Te'o still thought he had a long-distance girlfriend …
– Jay Busbee
WHY THE STREAK IS IMPRESSIVE
Above all else, hockey is a game of unpredictable variables. Injuries. Subpar goaltending. A fluke goal.
That the Blackhawks have avoided or overcome all of these things for the first 24 games of the 2012-13 regular season, earning at least a point in all of them, is unprecedented and incredible. They didn't just break the Edmonton Oilers’ 1984-85 record of 15 games; they obliterated it.
They also did this in a truncated season – a compressed schedule that has some teams playing four games in a week – with only a week of training camp. While other teams have looked lethargic, going from winning streaks to deep slumps in a matter of days, the Blackhawks have hummed along like a machine.
Factor in that coach Joel Quenneville was on the hot seat to start the season, having to dismiss one of his assistants last summer, and you have of the makings of a hockey fable.
Perhaps most impressive: Chicago has actually gone 30 regular-season games without a regulation loss, spanning back to March 27, 2012. That’s a lot of fluke goals to overcome in the first 60 minutes of a game.
WHY THE STREAK ISN'T IMPRESSIVE
Sports are about winners and losers, and thrice during this streak the Blackhawks have been losers in an overtime shootout. We can't call this a winning streak or an undefeated streak or anything succinctly sexy like that; instead, it's the cumbersome "most consecutive games without a loss in regulation and having earned at least one point." Ugh.
Oh, and about those points: By including overtime losses, the streak is a living symbol of the NHL's forced-parity points system.
The NHL's plan after the 2005 lockout was to create an overtime format that guaranteed a winner in every game, either through the 4-on-4 OT or the shootout. But it also guaranteed the losing team would earn at least a point for making it past 60 minutes, ushering in an era in which the Florida Panthers could back into a division championship through charity points.
Do we really need to be reminded of this?
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Let's not forget the least impressive aspect of this streak: Travel. Thanks to the truncated 48-game schedule, there are only intra-conference games this season. So while the 1979-80 Flyers had to ship out to the West Coast during their streak, the Blackhawks haven't had to face any Eastern Conference powerhouses.
Great … now the record is "most consecutive games without a loss in regulation and having earned at least one point against only one conference." You can't even acronym that.
DOES CHICAGO CARE?
Here is Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Rosenbloom's take:
Here's the thing about Chicago: We don't have real celebrities. We used to have two – Fat Oprah and Thin Oprah – but both left town. The athletes are the celebs. Everything is always in season. The Blackhawks are the fifth team in a four-sport town, so they have to do something extraordinary to jump to the top. This streak, this start, has done it. This has gotten them above the fold even by sports editors who still believe there are only 22,000 hockey fans and they all just happen to show up. This has earned them the lead on TV sportscasts even by talking heads who have no idea where the puck is but there's a red light that tells them it's a happy ending. Most telling, however, is sports-talk radio: Blackhawks games are being broken down like Bears games the day after. No lie. Joel Quenneville's line changes are getting parsed like Jay Cutler's audibles.
Comcast SportsNet, the Hawks cable home, has been doing record ratings, even when its's dogbreath Columbus and whoever the Minnesota Wild purport to be. Hawks games are an event, and they're doing these terrific TV numbers many times opposite Bulls games, such as [Wednesday] night. Hawks fans aren't holding the lockout against the team. [Gary] Bettman, though, had better not stick his head inside the United Center.
It has gotten to the point where even Chicago fans think the NHL fixed this thing. I've contended that weird things happen in lockout years – the Devils finally winning a Cup, and Carolina, are you kidding me? – and the Hawks' streak fits that. Others contend the NHL rigged things to make sure the attention was on the ice. The most recent example cited by conspiracists is Dave Bolland's clear slash of a stick that was not whistled and led to Jonathan Toews' spectacular game-tying short-handed [goal] in the third period against Colorado on Wednesday. I never met a conspiracy I didn't want to embrace, but then, how did Paul Stastny's forearm to Andrew Shaw's face go unpunished? Maybe the point is, once the locals talk and think conspiracy theories, you've made it, or made it back.
WHAT ARE THE LONGEST UNBEATEN STREAKS TO OPEN A SEASON?
Though it's not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison (there are no ties in baseball and basketball, and only in rare instances in football), you can get an idea of the magnitude of the Blackhawks' streak, and the difficulty of sustaining success, by looking across other sports:
Major League Baseball: Both the 1982 Atlanta Braves and 1987 Milwaukee Brewers began their respective seasons with 13 straight victories. The Braves were swept out of the National League Championship Series by the Cardinals, while the Brewers finished seven games out of first in the American League East.
NBA: The 1948-49 Washington Capitols and the 1993-94 Houston Rockets both started their seasons 15-0. The Capitols lost in the NBA Finals, while the Rockets won the NBA championship.
NFL: The 2007 Patriots won all 16 of their regular-season games, besting the 1972 Dolphins' 14-0 record. But while the Dolphins won the Super Bowl, the Patriots fell to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
– Jay Busbee
THE MIND GAME
The Blackhawks' hot streak might have melted down opponents in 24 straight games, but as with any epic run their biggest danger may come from within.
With the streak generating far more attention than the club would normally receive and the glare of the hockey world upon them, the pressure upon Joel Quenneville's men is surely creating an extra burden each time they lace them up. Or is the legend of the streak actually giving them an advantage?
"Just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is pressure," says Bill Cole, founder and president of the International Mental Game Coaching Association and a leading author on sports psychology. "To some guys this level of success will feel correct and natural to them and they just roll with it.
"But perhaps you're a young player, or a veteran who hasn't had so much success in your career, it might seem surreal. If it does, that person can self-derail, they will fight it."
This is where the leadership provided by Quenneville and his senior players really starts to kick in. Cole believes such a run of performance would have been impossible without shrewd marshaling from the 54-year-old coach.
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"The mindset on a team streak is very much on an individual basis and it is important how the coach handles it," Cole explained. "You don't want a coach coming and saying, 'Hey guys, we're on this run, let's just keep it going.' Their job is to stop you from getting fat and happy. Sometimes their words may even come across as negative, by raising the possibility that losing could happen if you don't perform well."
Given that the achievement itself is in some ways a statistical creation – the Blackhawks have lost in three shootouts but the streak continues as long as they are at least tied after overtime – Cole also warns against a scenario where it becomes so important that team members start "playing not to lose." Again, he says, experienced players know how to identify and avoid such mental traps.
– Martin Rogers
THE LOCKOUT EFFECT
Those empty weeks towards the end of last year when hockey was frozen out by the collective bargaining dispute has led to a compacted schedule of 48 games, with fewer off-days than in a typical campaign.
That may have helped the Blackhawks gain momentum, but also increased the physical toll on players who have considerably less opportunity to rest their aching limbs and mend those niggling knocks.
However, Cole insists that the strain of quick turnarounds and packed travel schedules could be outweighed by a mental benefit.
"Tiredness could be their friend," Cole said. "You don't want to think, 'How are we doing this?' too much. And the tight schedule cuts into the dead time. A lot of experienced players often perform better when they are tired anyways, it almost serves to release mental pressure."
– Martin Rogers
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
Who knows what hockey might look like in the 2712-13 season, but according to a leading mathematical expert that is the next time we can expect to see such a dominant run to begin a season.
Richard Cleary, professor of mathematical sciences at Bentley University (Waltham, Mass.), based that extraordinary statistic on the presumption that leading NHL teams generally gain at least a point in around 75 percent of their games.
"The fact that it is taking place to begin a season adds to the statistical improbability," Cleary said. "For it to happen at some point during a season is much more likely.”
Cleary claims the chances of a team embarking upon a season-opening run like Chicago are unlikely enough to occur only once every 700 years, meaning 2713 should be one heck of a year for somebody.
Perhaps it will be the turn of the Moon City Apollos to create history, accomplishing the feat with a triumph over their hated rivals, the Mars … Martians (?).
Sorry, I got a bit nerdy there. I'll stop now.
– Martin Rogers
MORE IMPRESSIVE STREAK: BLACKHAWKS OR MIAMI HEAT?
As it stands right now – 24 straight games scoring a point by the Blackhawks, 16 straight wins by the Heat – the Hawks have the edge, in as much as anyone can say either has an edge.
Sorry, Stephen A., but to make this evaluation you have to compare apples to apples, which means comparing the Blackhawks' streak to the longest in NHL history and the Heat's to the longest in NBA history.
The NHL record for consecutive games without a loss is 35, held by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1979-80. The Blackhawks are 68 percent of the way there (85 percent if you count last season, which we're not).
The NBA record for most consecutive wins is 33 by the '71-72 Los Angeles Lakers. The Heat are 48 percent there.
The kicker here is that the NHL didn't institute overtime until 1983, meaning the '79-80 Flyers never faced an overtime or a shootout. Nine times during that streak games ended in ties.
The Blackhawks have already faced 10 overtimes. They've won four of them, sent the other six to a shootout, which in some ways already makes their streak more impressive than even the '79-80 Flyers.
– Jay HartNHL video from Yahoo! Sports:
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