Expectations are funny things. Successes and failures are minimized or magnified by what's anticipated. Recall the 1987 Warren Beatty/Dustin Hoffman Hollywood crapper Ishtar, which become synonymous with "monumental flop." Without its burdensome expectations, the film might have been just a blip on the radar.
Indeed, things rarely turn out exactly as you expect. For every Lost in Translation, there's a Howard the Duck; for every Caribbean vacation, there's a third-degree sunburn.
Enter Pens rookie phenom Evgeni Malkin. When was the last time somebody or something not only met your expectations, but exceeded them? Just how do we respond when, expecting to find a Honda CRV in the driveway, we discover a brand-new BMW Z4 Roadster? And -- given Malkin's ability to make gravity-defying plays -- it's kitted out like the Batmobile?
Last season, we kept hearing how talented Malkin was, that he was the best player not already in the NHL. But that was no guarantee that he was the NHL's next Boy Wonder, particularly when we already had one boy wonder working his magic for the Pens.
Malkin is better than advertised. It's not just that he's scoring, or even that his goals make everybody gasp with disbelief. Goals needn't be spectacular to be works of beauty. Malkin is always going to the net, always moving, always deking and ducking, looking for the feed from Crosby, or just a bouncing puck headed his way. On Nov. 1, the L.A. Kings pretty much mugged Malkin out of fear after the first period, when he'd already scored his sixth goal in as many games.
And while it's harder to offer empirical evidence about the intangibles Malkin brings to the ice, he seems to lift the whole team. There is a resiliency to this squad that we saw only flashes of last year. Maybe that's attributable to a full off-season with Michel Therrien. Maybe it's Sid Crosby making this team his own. And maybe part of it is the addition of Evgeni Malkin.
In that same win against the Kings in L.A., the Pens were down fast, almost right off the face-off. But L.A.'s opening goal was followed by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury blocking another wide-open scoring opportunity, still before fans even had a chance to take their seats.
It's the kind of thing that can get a team down, particularly at the beginning of a tough West Coast trip. But the Pens came back, tied the game, and fought through two tough periods to take it to overtime when, yeah, Malkin scored the game-winner.
In all sports, the moments immediately following a score are the swing times in a game. You can really take the wind out of an opponent's sails by answering its score quickly. And you can lose momentum by giving up a score right after you've tallied. In L.A., Jordan Staal answered the Kings' first-period goal almost immediately. A few minutes later, Malkin put them on top.
All of this amazing production has fans in Pittsburgh talking playoffs, largely due to Malkin's ability to make things happen. And it's not even Thanksgiving.
As of this writing, the Pens rank third in the NHL with 22.8 percent scoring on power plays, and second in goals per game, with 3.7. It's a safe to say these guys are good for some offense. Gone are the days, just a few years ago, when chants of "Shoot! Shoot the puck!" rained down on the ice as the Penguins passed around the perimeter, looking for the perfect shot, unable to pull the trigger.
Meanwhile, Crosby just keeps on being Sidney Crosby. Only two years into his career, it seems like old hat. Yawn, just another boring season for Sidney -- who, in the first 10 games, had six goals and 12 assists, and played physical, tireless defense.
Fleury, for his part, looks like he's really figuring it all out in net. While his goals-against average of 2.61 is right in the middle of the pack, his save percentage of .922 ranks seventh in the league. If Therrien's squad really is going to make the playoffs (a year early by most estimations), the defense must continue to get rebounds out in front of Fleury.
It's all coming together, and so much faster than anybody could have expected.
There it is again: expectation. It was a pretty high probability that a team built around picks like Malkin, Crosby, Staal and Fleury would eventually succeed. We've recalibrated our expectations: The future is now.
In mathematics, expectations are defined as the product of the probability of the occurrence of a given event and the value associated with its occurrence. Whatever that means. Expectations, probabilities, variables, rationalizability -- they're all mathematical and statistical principles applied to games in the Nash equilibrium principle, which relies heavily on the concept of expectations.
Recently, I spent several hours trying to parse the Nash equilibrium theory as it's applied to games. But at the end of the night, all my calculations ended up looking like this: 87 + 81 = W.