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The winning streak mirage Add to ...

Belated Happy Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus all, we would have wished it to you on time had our team of work-shy witticists been able to cook up something better than a lame, predictable riff on "A Visit From St. Nick".

But they couldn't, so we didn't.

However, it's not all lumps of ecologically damaging coal here at Domaine French Immersion, as we open the final week of 2009 with a glint in our eye, only the slightest hint of Ebenezer-ian misanthropy, and a discussion of statistics.

The years have dulled the memories, but it seems our undergraduate stats profs used to drone on about how a minimum of three data points were required to exhibit a trend, and that one really should only start to feel comfortable with five or more, accounting for outliers and assuming statistical significance according to the usual formulas.

But this is almost a new decade, and a media age where one data point is a trend, two constitute mounting evidence, and three prompt people to make sweeping declarations like: smoking will kill you. Eh? Oh.

Nowhere is that more true than in Quebec's terminally excitable hockey media.

The proper French word for it is "engouement" or gusto, fancy, infatuation as our Petit Robert informs us the Rest Of Canada might say.

Generally we're in favour of such sentiments, which in Quebec are expressed frequently and often inexplicably - one of the things we love about our peuple is its propensity for creating overnight successes and fondness of same.

The down side, of course, is the same social forces that vault obscure people and things to prominence can also create groupthink of a most vexing and tenacious sort.

Like, for example, the suddenly entrenched perception that Jaroslav Halak is anything but a backup goalie, if a top-tier one.

Yes, he was named the NHL's first star for last week, but that's a distinction also bestowed this season on people like Jimmy Howard and, ahem, Ty Conklin.

Still, respected pundits are now musing that Halak'd be worth a top-six forward or a first-rounder in a trade (we'll have what they're having), and that maybe it's a smarter move to ship out Carey Price.

Why, we even heard a normally reasoned commentator compare the plucky Slovak, whose agent is reportedly agitating for a move, to Patrick Roy the other night.

Which he surely is - minus the consistency, wins, shutouts, playoff dominance and championships.

This is not to hack on poor, old, hard-done-by, trade-me-right-friggin-now Jaro. Oh, no.

He has played quite well - and occasionally brilliantly - in his current string of four road wins, having been shelled for 1,983 shots over that period (well, given the excitement, it might as well have been that many).

But, um, are we the only ones to have noticed he and the Habs have done it against the three worst teams in the Eastern conference and the coldest team in the NHL not named the Edmonton Oilers?

Our point is simply this: despite the supposed heroics from Halak (who will surely be credited with "saving the season" if they make the playoffs), the Habs aren't playing appreciably better than they did in the five straight losses that preceded the road trip.

And, more worryingly for Habs nation, when they actually have to play against half-decent teams, they typically have their jocks handed to them.

The four-game streak comes on the heels of an 0-4-1 scaly patch at the hands of Pittsburgh, Atlanta (in OT), Buffalo, New Jersey, and Minnesota.

Note that four of those teams are above the Habs in the standings (Atlanta hadn't yet gone into its current slide), and Minny has won 11 of its last 15 (they have the same number of points as Montreal, with two games in hand).

Not to be doomsayers, but we say 'doom'.

It's not like we can be bothered to do things like actually track all the shots, but it seems to us from beady-eyed watching that the big CH crest on Halak's jersey might need replacing from all the pucks that have creased it.

Some of that is undoubtedly down to good positioning, but some of it is surely the result of facing some of the crappiest and least competent shooters in the league. No?

For example, the New York Islanders, the worst team in the NHL a year ago, were in a 2-5 stretch when the Habs beat them 3-0 (and if Matt Moulson hadn't fired the puck into Halak's chest from point-blank range at least twice, they may have made one or two of their 40 shots count).

The Carolina Hurricanes, comfortably the worst team in the NHL this year, were in a 2-4-1 slide when the Habs thumped them 5-1 (while allowing 47 shots).

The Atlanta Thrashers, who have made the playoffs only once in their history, were in a 2-6 stretch when Habs squeaked past them in overtime, haven't won since then, are 2-8 in their last 10 and facing the Devils tonight. Good luck with that.

And the Maple Leafs, in a 1-3-1 slide before last Saturday's Habs game, had at least two gilt-edged chances to win that Halak could do nothing to prevent - first Phil Kessel hit the post (the seventh time, by our count, that an opponent has struck the iron in the past four games) and then he missed the net on a perfect Matt Stajan feed in the dying seconds.

Tonight's opponents, the Ottawa Senators, are limping along at .500 over the last two weeks, and are shorn of two-thirds of their top line: Alfredsson and Spezza. Halak always plays well against the Sens, so perhaps with Brian Gionta returning to the lineup, the Habs can extend their streak.

Yes, the Canadiens sit in seventh, but they have played more games than anyone in the conference, and keep giving up overtime points to their would-be playoff rivals.

And here's a stat: the Habs have outshot their opponents only twice since Nov. 17, a span of 19 games. That's a quarter of the season, folks. In those games, they've given up 30 or more shots 15 times (and 40 or more six times).

A recipe for disaster, in other words, and beyond the ken of any netminder - whether it's Halak, Price, or a Franken-goalie assembled from the best bits of Roy, Dryden and Plante - to consistently overcome.

For all that, Les Glorieux are now 7-7 in the first 14 contests in their 17-game month 'o hell (which includes their longest road trip since 2003, so the Cirque du Soleil can have its moment in the Bell Centre, er, sun).

Could be worse, but it says here that's still not good enough to cement playoff status.

They need a streak longer than four games, and they need it to include victories over the teams ahead of them in the standings. That's not going to happen with 35 shots against.

Lost in all this talk about the Halak effect is the more plausible reason for the current Habs success: the Markov effect.

Now that's something to get excited about.

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