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On the Penguins, Sample Size and Apocalypse Narratives (Tuesday Slew)

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Because we don't do reasonable around here.

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

HEADLINE! Pittsburgh's penalty kill is going to be an Achilles' Heel this season!

(The team has killed 18 straight chances over its last five games.)

BREAKING! The team is going to walk away with the Metropolitan Division again!

(They're in second place, and half the division is within a point of catching them.)

THIS JUST IN! The Penguins just can't put away teams late in the game!

(They've outscored their opponents 5-0 in the third period of two straight games, both wins.)

So, how's your October going?

It's early. Too early. The NHL's October schedule is good for a spate of season prediction pieces and a shelter from the early-autumn Great American Football Deluge of Football, and not much else.

No one leading their division by Halloween is guaranteed so much as a playoff spot. Some of the league's scoring leaders will fall off the pace. People get hurt. Things don't work out. Everything is guaranteed to change, and that's about all.

Two weeks into their season, the Penguins sit at 5-2-1, good enough for second place in a competitive, if not stellar, Metropolitan Division. They've enjoyed two winning streaks of two games, and suffered through one insufferable half-week, two-game losing streak.

That we agree to call those streaks of any kind is proof of how desperate we can be to wring narratives out of the most inconsequential part of any team's schedule.

Advanced stats guys will tell you that sample size is everything. What makes for compelling narrative might be worth two tears in a bucket if put to the test of a full season's worth of playing time. Lighthouse Hockey has a good read on the matter.

What applies to scoring and skating can also apply to narratives -- specifically, the very bad, not good ones.

From LHH,

The second is Sample Size - the issue being that the numbers we have often come from such a small sample size that we can't rely on them to make accurate judgments of a player's true talent and his worth going forward. Now this is true in every sport (and other things as well), but it is a particular problem in hockey, far more than the average fan realizes.

...

But for several commonly used statistics, even a full season isn't quite enough for a user of statistics to conclude anything about a player's true talent, something that often is unrealized by the average fan.

Cut out the talk of statistics and games played and replace them with "trade everyone!" or "Cup favorites!" and you've got an idea how small sample sizes can be damning not just in numerical, scouting senses, but in a greater, more qualitative sense.

Sample size and perspective are not easily retained in a world of social media and content overload.

In other words, we don't do reasonable around here.

That's why it's important to sometimes to temper a big success by waiting to see it happen more often than not -- or, more importantly, to reasonably wait out a few losses by keeping things in perspective or, failing that, maybe just putting a garbage can over your head.

There are certainly trends that have started to take shape through the first tenth of the season schedule, good and bad, and none so familiar that it's likely to maintain course through another 74 games.

Evgeni Malkin had a few terrible defensive games, and the "trade him!" crowd came through in full. Two wins later, Malkin still has a point in every game this season. So he's been great or terrible, maybe both, and in less than ten games this season.

That's just one example. The penalty kill's quick turnaround (from 9-of-15 to start the year to perfect over its last 18 assignments) is another, as should be the team's previously-perceived inability to close out games. Two straight losses in which the Penguins were the less competitive team in the third frame are a distant memory now, as the team has outscored its opponents 5-0 in the third since the Detroit game.

Two wins or a short streak of sustained improvement can wipe away the bad vibes, just as two bad losses can wipe away the good vibes that early beatings of Anaheim and Toronto provided.

But it's important to remember that everything regresses to a mean. Especially the good things.

For instance, this team is not going to maintain a 40-plus percent power play all season. Doing so would shatter the franchise record of 26 percent in 1995-96, and would be an NHL record by a near-10 percent gap over the current record.

An average of three goals against per contest is also not going to keep the team near the top of the division, even though that's where they currently find themselves despite a team GAA that's in the lower half of the league.

In the past five years, one grew to expect basically the same things from this team -- lots of regular-season wins, a bunch of goals, and a hold-your-breath postseason.

With so much new and still under testing, we really will have to wait, play a few more games, and see what kind of team this is going to be. If we haven't already burned it to the ground, that is.

Tuesday Slew is a feature that runs Wednesdays throughout the season. Shower James with your praise and adulation on twitter, @SlewFooters.