The Wacky East and Chaos Theory


I find that from every occurrence in hockey, analysts will draw one of two universalizing and entirely contradictory conclusions: either that the game is the predictable outcome of systems with a liberal sprinkling of occasionally small sample sizes to spice things up, or that the game is complete chaos and basically we know nothing.

The Stanley Cup playoffs exemplify these principles; either a team goes on a hot streak and defies expectations, or one of the league’s few elite teams goes all the way. Everything is deliberate and careful, or the Hockey Gods bless the Chosen Ones. In either scenario, the analysts (I’m including myself here) are able to point to the result and nod knowingly. We knew something like that would happen.

The Kings are the perfect example. Last year absolutely nobody was picking them to win the Cup. Everyone knew they were good, sure; maybe everything would align, just as it did, but I don’t think they were being talked about the way people talk about the Penguins. They won it all, and now they’re included among those elite teams. Chaos turns into a sense of structure. Only the truly deserving ever win, and we know that, because when we win we retroactively talk about why they’re truly deserving.

But now, the East is turning everything on its head again. Ottawa handily defeats Montreal because Montreal is an overachieving team that didn’t have the mental fortitude or team system for playoff hockey. Then Ottawa is handily defeated by the Penguins because the Penguins are a class above in talent. Now the Penguins are being destroyed by Boston, and the analysts are struggling to understand why. I saw some picking the Pens to sweep Boston. The narrative thread of fish being eaten by bigger fish is fraying.

So what does this matter to Senators fans? Well, as we all know by now, expectations are everything. Back when the Senators were dominating the regular season, anything short of a conference final was considered a disappointment. Players were traded and coaches fired after extremely successful seasons ended without a Cup. (Al Vignault nods silently and John Tortarella nods then throws a desk chair through a window.) These past couple of years, just being invited to the dance has been enough. But now there’s an expectation: is Ottawa on a linear path to greatness? Are they ready to elevate their game yet again, to go from “bubble playoff team” to “elite contender”? Is it ridiculous to even presume that these things happen so predictably? Next year we could see Ottawa with none of the injuries finish second last overall, for all we know.

We should watch the Pens-Bruins series closely this year. A team that is probably as stacked as any I’ve ever seen is being handled, and easily. It’s as if two careful, intentional systems were placed across from one another and produced only chaos. It’s fascinating, and it’s hard to know what we can learn from that series, except that even under the best of circumstances–two generational talents, incredible scorers up and down the line-up, a deep defense, veterans everywhere–we’re all subject to the cruel randomness of this weird, wacky sport.


5 thoughts on “The Wacky East and Chaos Theory

  1. I am someone who is so happy the Pens are losing. In my mind it is Karma. It would be grossly unfair for a team that has somebody who has destroyed the careers of a number of players
    (Donovan and Savard to mention a couple) and also destroyed the season of Karlsson to win despite this incredible stacked up lineup.
    Also .. the referrees made sure Ottawa could not execute a plan relying on physicality. While Ottawa was unlikely to win the series, the one by Boston is a blow to the referees and their superiors. (see this posting

    So .. very happy the Pens are losing.. good riddance

  2. You do know that the common theory holds that everything goes from order to chaos, not chaos to order, right? 😛 (You wrote: “They [LA Kings] won it all, and now they’re included among those elite teams. Chaos turns into a sense of structure.”) But I really like what you’re saying, and I think comparing expectations to the idea of chaos is a good idea. That idea of linear path of greatness is probably a faulty one; math doesn’t apply as easily to sports as other things like… uh… physics IDEK. Anyway, I’m all for it… as long as chaos has up landing sunnyside up. 🙂

    • Yeah, what I meant but didn’t articulate very well was that analysts have a tendency to impose the idea of structure on chaos. LA winning last year was an unpredictable outcome that is now treated as totally normal and expected.

  3. LA was picked to contend for the Pacific lead that year, no one predicted them to be a bottom feeder. They just regressed under Terry Murray and needed a change of personnel as well.
    Have the 2012 NHL Yearbook right here, LA Kings: 2nd in West, “Lombardi is now clearly of the mind that there are enough pieces on the current roste for the fans to expect a winner.”

    As for us, I’m expecting a Conference Finals or at least a much, much better performance in the second round (6 or 7 games at least). The team has shown it’s well into the development stage and Murray said at the post-mortem that he sees this team as a contender. Giddyup!

  4. Max WillisThe Penguins have a better team with more skielld players. Their offence force of Crosby, Kunitz, and Guerin has enough power to take any goalie. A key to the Flyers defeat was our 3rd line with Staal. The Pens will have a force led by Malkin, Crosby, and Fluery to go far.

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