I wrote this piece for Out in Left Field, which isn't an advertisement or name drop for my blog in any way, unless your a Chicago sports fan, then yeah, go for it! Otherwise... I wrote it originally because ESPN tends to be moronic, and decided to let Stephen A. Smith dismantle the Hawks streak in a debate against the Heat's 15 game streak, which was stupid because the Clippers have already had a longer 17 game win streak earlier in the year (It's LeBron, so in ESPN's mind it deserves to be higher on the pedestal) and Stephen A. Smith knows jack about hockey. I instead decided to compare the streak to a similar point scoring style in a different sport, football, and that of the Invincibles. Just ignore the whole common fan part though, obviously you guys know what the hell I'm talking about.
As most of us who deal with the shit that ESPN provides us with nowadays, because it's pretty much the only local 24 hour sports network available to us over basic cable networks, you probably already know of Stephen A. Smith's dismantlement of the Blackhawks 22 (now 23) game streak without a regulation loss to start the season. First off, it was compared to the Heat's now 15 game winning streak, which in itself is a crime because they haven't even gotten past the Clippers 17 game streak yet. Secondly, Stephen A. Smith knows next to absolutely nothing about the sport of hockey, and when they brought Barry Melrose on to take the side of the Hawks, he still let Smith reference "ties", which haven't occurred since before the lockout of '04-'05. So I'm taking this one to a different level and comparing it to something that's more relative to the hockey scoring system, football (for those of you who live in a American cultural bubble, that's soccer) and the Arsenal from 2003 to 2005.
We'll start with the Arsenal, since the streak is the oldest and most historic and probably needs some background explanation to the common NHL fan. This is probably the greatest era of Arsenal football (at least in the modern era) to most of us Gooners, as it provided us with memories for supporters both young and old to remember for a lifetime. Under the management of Arsene Wenger and the prolific lineup that included the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Patrick Viera, Freddie Ljungberg, Ashley Cole, Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell, and Jens Lehmann, the Arsenal went 49 straight games in English Premier League football without a regulation loss, beating the previous record set by Nottingham Forest back in '77/'78 with 42 straight games. This includes a complete season, the '03/'04 season, going 36 straight games without a loss, the first since Preston North End did so way back in 1888-89, and North End only played 22 games that season.
Commonly known as the Invincibles to those associated with English football and the Arsenal, this squad is arguably considered to be the most dominant of the Premier League era. Arsenal utterly disassembled opponents with their high powered offense of Henry, Bergkamp, and Pires, and the defense of Cole, Lauren, and Campbell essentially strangled any offensive life from opposing teams. During this streak, the Arsenal would go on to score 112 times and only conceded 35, an outrageous +77 in goal differential, leading to 36 wins and 13 draws.
For comparison to the Hawks though, we'll just use the Invincible season of '03/'04, as the actual streak stretches though three seasons of Premier League football. That season, the Arsenal notched a record of 26 wins and 12 draws and not a single loss while scoring 73 times and only giving up 26 goals, a goal differential of +47, which bettered 2nd place Chelsea by 10. They also topped Chelsea by 11 points at the end of the season. Even though that season of EPL play was straight up dominant in a way that nobody had ever seen before (unless you were around in 1889), they didn't do so hot in the other competitions, losing out in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and League Cup to Manchester United and Middlesbrough, respectively. They also got knocked out of the UEFA Champions League in the Round of Eight by... 2nd place EPL finishers Chelsea. That being said though, the League Cup squads were mostly reserve players and the FA Cup was a slight blemish that season, but the early Champions League knockout was quite a blow to the year. In the EPL though, Thierry Henry did his usual thing, scoring 30 times to lead not only the team in goals, but the league as well, and Jens Lehmann notched 15 clean sheets. Arsenal also only conceded more than one goal only three times and themselves scored more than one goal 24 times, almost two thirds of the whole season. The squad was recently voted by fans as the greatest Premier League side of all time.
As for the Hawks, who as of just about an hour and a half ago notched game #29 with a 5-3 win over the Wild, their streak is not only historic in Blackhawks history (they just set their season long win streak at 10 games tonight, without an OT/Shootout loss), but rivals that of historic NHL teams as well. They've just passed the '77/'78 Montreal Canadians streak of 28 games without a regulation loss and they're only 6 games away from the all time streak of 35 games set by the '79/'80 Philadelphia Flyers. Over the course of this time, the Blackhawks have registered a total of 52 points with a record of 23 wins, 0 losses, and 6 OT/SO losses while scoring 91 goals and only conceding 57 goals, a scoring differential of +34, which is only 1 goal higher than the +33 they're at on this current season. Led by Mr. Serious Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa the Panda, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, and Ray Emery, they form arguably the best first lines and netminders on the ice in the NHL today. Backed up by veterans Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya and the relatively new Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Nick Leddy, and Niklas Hjalmarsson and under the guidance of Joel "Q" Quenneville, this is a team set for the history books regardless of if they reach the all time streak or not. The only real blemish aside from shootout losses and some poorly defensive games towards the end of last season, was the first round exit of the 2012 NHL Playoffs by the Phoenix Coyotes, who stopped the Hawks with the Oscar worthy nominee and rock solid Mike Smith minding the net. As the playoffs haven't occurred yet and nobody is holding the Cup, we can't be for sure where to rank this team, but it's on the path to become one, if not the best Blackhawks team ever assembled (knock on wood, right now, for the love of God).
It's sort of a difficult task to compare the two in terms of outright numbers outside of wins and draw/OT losses. Obviously, scoring comes less frequently in football than it does in hockey, especially in English football where the play is much more physical than most other European leagues. In terms of outright offensive play, I give a slight advantage to the Hawks. While Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, and Ljungberg combined for a majority of Arsenal's goals in this streak, including 30 by the legendary Henry, the Hawks have actually balanced their offensive production amongst all their lines, seeing goals come from just about everywhere, including defensemen. I think the balanced attack outweighs the reliance on just a few players for scoring, even though it's usually the case amongst football teams. The production from the third and fourth lines on the Hawks though was something we weren't expecting and probably plays the key role in why the Hawks are on this streak in the first place, clutch performances are coming from all across the board and not just from a few individuals.
Defensively, I'll have to go with the Arsenal outright. The Invincibles didn't just beat opponents, they outmuscled and strangled almost everyone. It really doesn't matter what sport it is, when your only giving up more than one goal on three occasions, especially during an entire season, that's something of pure excellence, both on the players and coaching. Meanwhile, as evidenced tonight while having a 4-1 lead shortened down to 4-3 in a matter of minutes, the Hawks are always capable of providing some heart attack moments in us, the biggest being the game against Detroit recently, where it took a late 3rd period power play goal from Kane just to keep the streak alive. I do give props though for the Hawks much better defense, because last year it was atrocious at times, but this year it's much more consistent.
As far as coaching goes, Q may have brought the Cup back to Chicago just a couple of years ago, but without a doubt, this one goes to Arsene Wenger, which will probably need some further explaining to the common reader. Hired as a relative unknown, Wenger practically changed the English game in almost every aspect, bringing free flowing passing and a high line defense to the usual 4-4-2 physically deep lying defensive strategy of English football. His different approach brought something that most English teams had never really prepared for before, and it resulted in years of success for Arsenal, picking apart and dismantling opponents along the way. He also changed the way teams are built, relying mostly on building up younger players to replace the older ones, instead of purchasing already established players, the way baseball and farm teams almost work. While nowadays, Arsenal are a shadow of the squads of a few years back, Wenger will easily go down in the history books as one of the all time great managers in the EPL. Q on the other hand has proven to be a great coach with a straight forward approach and a seeming tendency to bust out a random line generator during games. Even though he brought the Cup back to Chicago for the first time in 49 years, he hasn't changed the way the game is played like Wenger will be remembered by.
In comparison though, it shouldn't be that hard of a decision to decide who's been/was better. Clearly the Arsenal have the most recognized and historic streak in EPL football, but the Hawks are on a roll that comes more recognized to hockey fans because of much increased coverage compared to the late '70's and early 80's helped by television deals, the internet and social media, and the awesome ability to fail at debating by ESPN, especially among American and Canadian fans. On a short term basis, I would have to go with the Hawks. Hockey is a much more physical game, and the skill level required on skates to pass and shoot a puck against some of the best athletes in the world, and go 29 games practically unbeaten is just outstanding in itself. But on a long term basis, I would have to go with the Invincibles. While the streak the Hawks are approaching was recently set just over three decades ago and they probably will lose a game in regulation at some point this season, the Arsenal set a streak that probably won't ever be eclipsed by an English team ever again, not at the level the top EPL clubs are currently performing at, and that alone reigns almost above all. Unless the Hawks go 50 straight unbeaten, then my mind would probably explode into a million pieces and, yeah...