In my perfectly timed article on Phil Kessel yesterday, I noted that his scoreless streak, which ended last night, was not out of the norm for a shooter like Kessel:
“That said, if he continues to get pucks on goal they will start finding the twine eventually.”
In fact, that streak wasn’t the longest of his career and a streak of 42 shots is not something to be worried about in hockey – it’s normal. Streaks happen – it’s just part of luck. It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around – that one of the best players in the league can go so long without scoring simply due to luck, but it’s a real and measurable phenomenon.
The first response in the comments section, and it’s a common response in this discussion because “luck” is a mind-boggling answer to some, was:
The fact is he is a sniper that is not scoring.
The response calls to mind one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the subject, by the ubiquitous Vic Ferrari:
Streaks are interesting phenomena. They are also very difficult to pin down with any language, be it spoken or mathematical. On top of that, the human brain seems to have evolved to recognize patterns, and we can spot them even where they don’t exist. Children can’t look at a cloud, a stipple ceiling or the grain in wood panelling without seeing an image. Ask one if you don’t believe me.
Vic goes on to challenge the reader to re-arrange a pattern until it “seems properly random” and look at the results. It’s a wondeful experiment, follow the link and take the challenge.
What I’m getting at is that though streaks, both bad and good, are hard to digest and understand, they are normal across any sample of events. Consider that prior to the beginning of Kessel’s streak this year, he was a career 10.7% shooter. Given a sample of 42 consecutive shots, there is about a 1% chance that Kessel will not score a goal in that sequence of shots. There’s about a 3% chance that Kessel will only score once in 46 shots, his totals after last night’s streak-breaking game winner.
If Kessel’s shot rates were dropping (they’re up, actually) or his possession metrics falling apart (they’re stable), there might exist a cause for concern. But they’re not, and Kessel remains a highly effective player. While a streak like the one Kessel experienced seems unimaginable for Leafs fans, mathematically, it’s not that improbable. It’s just bad luck.