Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Tortoise and the Hare

In the fable, the hare mocked the slow moving tortoise, leading the tortoise to challenge the hare to a race. In the race, the hare sprinted off to an early lead, and seeing that he was far ahead of the tortoise, decided to rest. The hare fell asleep, only to awaken later and find that the tortoise had already won the contest.

The moral of the story is that “slow and steady” wins the race.

Well, there is a subtext to the fable that applies to the long regular season of the NHL – you’d better make progress early, even to be “steady.”

That brings us to October (which can’t come soon enough for hockey fans), and whether a fast start is a key ingredient to a Stanley Cup championship. The Capitals have played in 33 Octobers in their 34-year history (the 1994-1995 season starting too late for any games in October). In those 33 Octobers, the Caps have never won as many as ten games. That’s not so bad; only four of the last 33 Stanley Cup champions have won ten or more games in October (the Detroit Red Wings did it three times – 1997-98, 2001-02, and 2007-08 – and the New York Islanders in 1982-83).

However, while winning ten or more games – that fast start by the hare – isn’t essential to winning a Stanley Cup, there is something to be said for “steady” progress. And the key measure here is in points earned per game in the season’s first month. In the last 33 Octobers played (corresponding to the Caps’ history), only once has the eventual Stanley Cup winner has earned fewer than a point a game, on average, for the month (Montreal in 1985-86). Only twice has the eventual winner earned fewer than 10 points (Montreal – nine points in nine games in 1978-79 and again with eight points in ten games in 1985-86).

The Capitals, as any long-time fan will note, have been notorious slow-starters. Something about horses is cited as the usual culprit (although the Washington International Horse Show has a smaller calendar footprint in recent years, making for shorter trips away from home to start the season). In 33 seasons, the Caps have averaged at least a point a game in October only 12 times. In those 12 instances, the Caps made the playoffs 10 times, but advanced past the second round only once (in 1998, when they went 7-4-2 in October and went to the Stanley Cup final).

In the last 33 NHL Octobers, the eventual Stanley Cup champion has averaged 1.37 points per game. The 1.37 points per game average is a 112-point pace over an 82-game season. Now, it’s true that the nature of standings points has changed, but it will not really affect the point we are going to make in a material sense. The Capitals, in those same 33 Octobers, have exceeded 1.37 points per game in October only twice – in 1991-92 and 1995-96. Good teams – contending teams – are good early. Also rans also reveal themselves early. The Caps have a long history of being a playoff-eligible team (20 playoff appearances in 34 seasons, including that abbreviated 1994-95 season), but they also have a disturbing history of making early exits (advancing past the second round only twice in 20 appearances).

As we move forward into the 2009-10 season, history is a guide. Playing well in October isn’t a guarantee of playing at all in June, there being only two finalists. But you’d better play well in October to give yourself a chance. Not necessarily lights out, but the slow and steady sort of tempo that corresponds with a 100 to 110-point or so pace.

The Caps have 13 games in October – seven at home, six on the road (no horse show excuses this year). If they finish the month on the far side of 15 points, it would be a good sign. If they don’t, history argues strongly against the Caps playing in June. You can’t win the Stanley Cup in October, but you can lose it.