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Sunday, December 7, 2008

The NHL At The Quarter Pole – OGA’s Strategic Take

November 26th has come and gone and Game 20’s have all ended. What does the NHL look like at this point beyond just the points in the standings? At On Goal Analysis (OGA), we believe it is looking like we are on our way to more parity than in previous years and that it may take more W’s/points to land a Playoff spot this season than last. Let’s look at this perspective from the NHL level on down to individual teams…

NHL Standings at Game 20

For the Game 11-20 period, the NHL average against OGA’s Playoff Qualifying Curve (PQC) has increased from the historical 11.09 to the current 11.267, a gain of +.265. This means all teams are winning 1/4 of a game more at the 2008/9 quarter pole than in the past three seasons’ history. This is displayed in three key and related statistics:

1. Scoring is up this season to an average of 5.83 goals per game from 5.57 (overall) last season. While this is still less than the 2006/7average, it is a good turn of events for fans and players’ stats (goalies excluded, of course).

2. The increase in scoring has led in turn to closer games as shown by a +27.45% increase in contests pressing into Overtime or a Shootout. This NOVEMBER has seen the most games in extra periods of the four NOVEMBERs since the Lockout by a margin of +10.

3. The extra points from the gain in Overtime and Shootout losses have seen only one team – the NEW YORK ISLANDERS – called OUT of the Playoffs so far this season. The historical average at this point has been three. This underscores the fact that teams are experiencing more parity at this point than in the past three seasons since the Lockout.

The above facts lead OGA to state that we may be looking at it requiring more wins/points to secure a Playoff berth for teams this season than the historical average. This theory, however, must be further dissected by observing at the Conference level.

The Eastern Conference

The East ended the 20-game span +.21 higher against the PQC than the post-Lockout, historical average. While they are currently under the NHL PQC average, they nonetheless indicate more winning is occurring ‘back East.’ This change is not yet enough to alter the overall conference PQC average, but bears close scrutiny as we progress to the Game 40 mark where OGA will know what it is likely to take to secure a Playoff berth.

The Western Conference

The West is enjoying improvements against the PQC just as with their Eastern brothers. They traditionally require an average 1/2 game more to qualify for the Playoffs than the East which is already reflected in the PQC formula. But the Western PQC has already increased by a +.323. That places this conference on track to end this year at least like they did in the 2006/7 season where an extra point/one OTL than the historical average was required simply to qualify for the final Playoff spot. As with the East, OGA is not quite ready to readjust the model, but it looks like we are headed in that direction, and possibly as early as the end of the 30-game mark. If this improvement continues unabated, by Game 60, it will require the highest amount of points to see the post-season in the West since the Lockout.

Team Notes

At the 10-game mark, OGA’s analysis indicated five teams had qualified for the Playoffs with MONTREAL performing the best of the group CHASING STANLEY. Another five teams have now done so at Game 20. The complete list includes: BOSTON; CHICAGO; DETROIT; MINNESOTA; MONTREAL; NY RANGERS; PITTSBURGH; SAN JOSE; VANCOUVER; and WASHINGTON. Five of these teams are in the East and the other five in the West. SAN JOSE is the leader of this pack at this juncture. Three of these teams are what we at OGA consider an absolute clench – BOSTON, DETROIT and SAN JOSE. In our opinion, and backed by historical analysis, the only way these three teams will not make the Playoffs is if they had a collapse so horrendous they looked like a completely different team on the ice than they actually are.

Three teams are at OGA’s rating of SHARPENING SKATES. This is just below securing a Playoff berth but indicates these teams – CAROLINA, NEW JERSEY and PHILADELPHIA – are on track toward doing so. At the 10 Game point, only two teams had earned this rating and BUFFALO has since slipped back to only playing IN THE CURVE. All three of these teams are in the Eastern Conference which points toward two more critical facts:

1. The average difference between the eighth-seeded Eastern team’s PQC and that of the bottom seven teams is –.557. To cover that distance and move into the upper tier of teams, the bottom seven will need from two-to-four wins more than the current eighth seed. Also, the East has six teams above, eight teams below, and one team even with their historical PQC averages.

2. The difference in the West is –.214 or 1/2-to-three wins. The West has nine teams above and six teams below their historical PQC averages.

These facts suggest that the top eight Eastern teams are playing a bit more than twice as well as their bottom seven than is occurring in the West. The Western Conference race to the Cup at this pace will also be significantly tighter than in the East.

As one of the season’s bigger surprises, The DALLAS STARS have reached the OGA rating of DUSTING OFF CLUBS, or almost out of contention. This means not yet eliminated, but if they do not get back on a normal, STARS’ winning track, they will be called OUT of contention by OGA after the next 10 games.

All other teams are playing IN THE CURVE with a few surprises here as well:

1. After a very slow start, ANAHEIM has picked up the winning pace and is on the positive side of the PQC.

2. Although still on the minus side of the PQC, ATLANTA improved from DUSTING OFF CLUBS to IN THE CURVE, proving how much pluck they have and why they are so difficult to levy a call against.

3. BUFFALO reversed course from a strong start to lose 6-of-10 in this timeframe and drop from SHARPENING SKATES – almost good enough to be called IN the Playoffs – to just on the positive side of IN THE CURVE.

4. COLUMBUS only lost two-of-10 to improve an overall +1.5 against the PQC.

5. Strangely, EDMONTON came off a long road trip to drop a –.5 against the PQC.

6. FLORIDA is still IN THE CURVE, but they declined another –1 to fall just short of DUSTING OFF CLUBS.

7. LOS ANGELES improved a +1 against the PQC on the strength of only three regulation losses in the 10-game span.

8. OGA called the NEW YORK ISLANDERS at TEE TIME – eliminated from post-season play – at the Game 10 mark. We will stick by our call until/unless the ISLES clench a Playoff berth. But it is worth noting that they improved from the cellar a +1.5 on the strength of only three regulation losses versus seven to start the season.

9. OTTAWA lost a –.5 against the PQC in this stretch of games, a continuation of their skid from Game 10. This is a surprise unless you compare this team to their Stanley Cup run club which began the season in a similar hole before finding their groove. They should be watched closely in the next 10 games for a rebound or there is real trouble here, however.

10. COLORADO, PHOENIX, ST. LOUIS, TAMPA BAY and TORONTO all declined a –1 against the PQC but are still IN THE CURVE at this time.

11. CALGARY and NASHVILLE played even for no change to their PQC between Game 10 and Game 20.

For the month of NOVEMBER, only one team, CALGARY, failed to have a game progress into extra periods. CHICAGO had six, a significant number although not a one-month record. COLORADO has played a total of four games that all went to a Shootout, and they are 100% victorious. Nobody else can stake that claim. CALGARY (0-1), PHOENIX (0-2) and DALLAS (0-4) have all failed to win in extra frames so far this season.

BUFFALO (0-4), CALGARY and TAMPA BAY (0-3) and VANCOUVER (0-1) have all failed to win in the second game of back-to-back pairings. Surprisingly, the NEW YORK ISLANDERS at 3-0 are the only team to win at every one of these opportunities so far this season. More teams continue to lose these contests, but the losing percentage is the lowest since the Lockout, again indicating more parity between teams.

SAN JOSE has scored the most Goals For while TAMPA BAY had the least by Game 20.

MINNESOTA had given up the least Goals Against and DALLAS the most.

Finally, 10 wins separated the highest– from the lowest–winning team.

The PQC is automatically adjusting for the Game 30 period per its formula. It will now be harder to stay above the curve from here on out as combined team fatigue and injuries turn stellar performers into average clubs against a PQC that demands a higher winning percentage for the remaining periods of play. Look for three or more teams to be eliminated from Playoff contention before Christmas. It is also likely the model may have to be adjusted for the West and continue to be closely monitored in the East in order to provide a truly accurate and early Playoff prediction for the 2009 Stanley Cup run.

The time is now for teams sitting on the verge of elimination to make some big move or adjustment to help bail the extra water from their leaky ship or they will be seeing the inside of the Clubhouse at the 19th Hole come early April 2009.

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