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Simpson: What have you done for me lately?

As the 2021 NHL season continues on its unusual course, remember that the structure of this season places even more emphasis on what is known as recency bias—that of giving far more weight to recent events than to events as a whole.

Sports fans are among the people most vulnerable to recency bias. A few good games are cause for optimism, even ecstasy, while a slump leads to disappointment, even despair, and a call to shake things up.

The Islanders are a case in point.

As January drew to a close, the team was riding a five-game winless streak against traditional foes, including losing several very winnable games and had seemingly settled into last place.

Fast forward to this week: Isles fans celebrated a seven-game point streak spoiled by a single shootout defeat and second place in the standings behind a team they have already beaten twice, the Bruins. Ilya Sorokin showed us what he can do, while several once-struggling forwards showed renewed offensive skill (hello JG Pageau and Josh Bailey).

Pittsburgh put a damper on that enthusiasm by defeating the Islanders on Thursday.

Although Barry Trotz’s skaters had some bad puck luck, they were outplayed in the 4-1 loss. Saturday’s contest will determine whether this was simply a temporary setback as we learn who the real Islanders are this year.

The structure of this year’s schedule magnifies recency bias. Every game counts. They are all four-point contests. It is not like playing the Western Conference in past years, where the Isles did not have to worry about the consequences on the standings when the other team salvaged the loser point. Moreover, there are only 56 games this year. We are already approaching the 30% mark of the season.

Earning 69 points this season is the equivalent of 101 points in an 82-game schedule. One can go up or down in the standings quickly. Complicating matters still further is the impact of league COVID protocols on the schedule, with games postponed and rescheduled (not playing for five days allowed the Islanders to regroup without going stale). Games played and games in hand become even more important when assessing your team’s prospects.

As a team that has little margin for error given its emphasis on defense and its difficulty in generating consistent offense, the Isles seem determined to make this an interesting season.


You can find Brooks Simpson on Twitter at @BrooksDSimpson.

About Brooks Simpson

Brooks Simpson writes, teaches, and speaks on American history and politics as a professor at Arizona State University. A native Long Islander, he has been an Islanders fan since the franchise's inception in 1972.

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