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The Blue Jackets and Wild streaks began with luck and ended with emotion

A statistics professor helps us understand the forces behind a streak.

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets met on Saturday. Normally this wouldn’t be a cause for writing an article, but it was quite historic!

Minnesota had won 12 straight games. Columbus had won 14 straight games. It was the first time in professional sports history (MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL) that two teams with such long streaks had met in the same season while streaking at the same time.

And the Blue Jackets, like they did all season long, survived the encounter. With a 4-2 win on New Year’s Eve, Columbus rides into the first week of 2017 with a real chance at breaking the NHL record (17 straight wins) set by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1993.

“If you flip a coin 100 times in a row, you're going to get maybe six heads in a row or seven tails in a row,” Texas Tech University professor Alan Reifman said when I spoke to him on Friday. “And it has nothing to do with the coin being confident or well-rested.”

Reifman, who teaches statistics at Texas Tech, has maintained a blog dedicated to sports streakiness called The Hot Hand since 2002. His book, also called The Hot Hand, examines the statistical and psychological aspects behind some of the most famous streaks in sports history. The book tries to “bridge the gap,” in his words, between the idea that streaks are based purely on ability and the idea that streaks are purely based on chance.

And as far as chance is concerned, the Blue Jackets’ streak seems pretty chancy.

“I think if you can rank the sports in terms of the amount of chance, hockey's high up there,” Reifman said. “The record is 17 straight. Basketball is 33 (straight wins). So it suggests that it's much harder to maintain a streak (in hockey). And of course until a few years ago, games could end in a tie. The Blue Jackets had three of their 15 (straight wins) end either in shootouts or overtime. There's certainly a certain amount of luck in that.”

Which makes sense. Both the Wild and the Blue Jackets had things go their way at the right times. Minnesota’s offense surged at the right time. Goalie Devan Dubnyk is having a sensational year, but his lowest monthly save percentage (.942 in November and .952, with three shutouts, in October) came in December during the Wild’s streak. Columbus has outshot its opponents in the third period by an average margin of +4.71.

If some chance led the Wild and Blue Jackets to their historic meeting on Saturday, emotion helped separate them.

There’s a key moment in the game on Saturday that marked the point where the two streaking teams diverged into their current fates. In a highly charged atmosphere, one team couldn’t control itself, and the other channeled its emotions into a win.

It all happened in the second period. The Blue Jackets held a flimsy one-goal lead, but the game was definitely up for grabs. Jackets winger Josh Anderson and Wild winger Chris Stewart got tangled up in a faceoff skirmish, which led to a fight and the turning point of the game.

More background before we get to the relevant video: Jackets forward Matt Calvert had previously gotten tangled up with Wild defenseman Mathew Dumba in a post-play scrum in the first period.

All right, back to the second period Turning Point™.

Stewart runs Seth Jones. Anderson finally decides to drop the gloves. Meanwhile, away from the play, Dumba gives into his anger (much to his Jedi master’s chagrin) and drops the gloves with Calvert to settle their score.

That was not a good idea.

Two factors came into play here.

The first, and most important: Mathew Dumba got ejected. You can’t start a fight after someone else already is fighting. Look, it’s in the rulebook:

Columbus could afford to lose Calvert, a talented and useful player but ultimately a smallish cog in its machine. Losing Dumba changed the game. Not only was the Wild without one of their best defensemen, they were down to playing five defensemen against one of the best offensive teams in the league. Not to mention the league’s best penalty kill.

And Columbus knew it:

The other factor is one that we don’t like talking about these days because of heightened awareness about concussions and their role in fighting: A good, well-timed fight in a big game can fire a team up. I admit it’s impossible to exactly quantify with stats whether a fight truly affects momentum, or whether momentum even exists. But I can point to two things:

  • Columbus scored twice in 15 seconds almost immediately after the fights.
  • And then possession stats for the two teams went from being intertwined to spiraling apart the rest of the game:

Oh, and a third thing. The players and coaches felt the change:

From Reed’s article in the Columbus Dispatch (emphasis mine):

Stewart was hoping to spark his team and the crowd in a tense, highly-charged atmosphere. Instead, it was the Jackets who surged. Johnson, who had an outstanding all-around game, and Atkinson scored 15 seconds apart to build the lead to 3-0.

I’ve seen Stewart fight a bunch and he’s put some guys down,” Jackets winger Scott Hartnell said. “A lot of credit to Andy for stepping up there. It really got the bench going.

The intensity and effort both teams put into trying to preserve their streaks was evident to everyone in the building. The Wild kept pushing to get back into the game, but Bobrovsky made a handful of huge stops, including a pair on Zach Parise, to stifle any thoughts of a rally.

In his book, Reifman writes about the presentism theory from psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Presentism is the state of expecting present conditions to last indefinitely. The idea is that if a player in basketball makes many shots in a row, the team around him would keep feeding him the ball expecting his “hot hand” to continue. Seems like a common thing across sports, right?

“However something is now, you think it’s going to continue,” Reifman said. “So if the Columbus players have this belief that ‘we own the third period’ because they’ve been owning the third period, that could continue on.”

And you could extrapolate that to Columbus playing with a lead. They got the first goal against Minnesota on Saturday; during this 15-game win streak they’ve scored first 10 times. Repetition feeds into that presentism: the belief that wins follow from those certain events. And streaks are born.

So toss that energy from those two fights onto that built-in confidence, and is it any wonder that the Blue Jackets emerged from the #UnsustainaBowl victorious?

As Reifman indicated, belief is a powerful thing. Just as powerful as the combinations of skill and luck that create the kind of run the Blue Jackets are on right now.

Both can coexist and feed into each other.

Everything can fall in place at the same time, as it did for Columbus and the Wild to close out 2016. But when those forces of statistical marvel collided on Saturday, the deciding factor was two minutes of raw emotion and confidence.