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Are the Nashville Predators a real Western Conference power?

Nashville Predators fans are downright giddy these days. A lousy start has been turned around remarkably, first with a seven-game winning streak in mid-November, and currently with a 6-0-1 stretch that has lifted them up among the Western Conference leaders like Chicago, San Jose and Los Angeles.

In the background, however, a tiny voice wonders - are they playing above their heads? Are the Predators really this good, or is this just a hot streak full of fortunate bounces that will surely be balanced out in the near future? Let's take a look at what the numbers might tell us...

In the past I've used a method called "Pythagenpuck" (PDF) to compare the actual points percentage (points earned in the standings as a fraction of the total possible) of various teams to what would be expected based on their Goals For and Against. Over the course of time it proves to be a very reliable indicator of team performance. The basic idea is that if you see a team with a points percentage well above or below the Expected value, one should anticipate that going forward they'll fall back in line, unless there's a significant reason for the Goals For & Against ratio to change (say, due to major roster or coaching changes). This model excludes points in the standings earned by winning a game in the shootout, as that's basically a coin-flipping exercise. You get two points for winning in regulation or OT, one point for losing in OT or the shootout, and zero for losing in regulation.

So what does Pythagenpuck tell us about the Nashville Predators this season?

As we all know, the Preds got off to a slow start this season, going 2-5-1 in the opening weeks as the team struggled to score goals, and J.P. Dumont missed action after taking a vicious hit in the second period of Game 1. After he returned things started looking up on the offensive end, and as Francis Bouillon rounded into shape playing a Top Four defensive role after signing at the end of training camp, the Goals Against began to settle down as well.

The following table lays out how the season has gone, breaking out the first 8 games, along with two looks at the short- and long-term positive streaks the team has been on, and the season totals:

Record Goals For Goals Against Exp. Points Actual Points Diff
 Opening 8 games 2-5-1 11 25 2.3 (.141) 4 +1.7
 Last 26 19-5-2 85 68 32.3 (.620) 37 +4.7
 Last 7 6-0-1 32 21 10.0 (.716) 12 +2.0
 Total to date 22-11-3 102 100 36.8 (.511) 43 +6.2

Again, remember that the "Actual Points" may be a few points short of what you'd expect from the record, due to the exclusion of shootout winners in the Pythagenpuck analysis.

Basically, although the Preds have won a few more points than one would expect based on Goals For and Against all along the way, their play since the opening weeks of the season has been truly excellent; using GF/GA from the 26-game stretch (85-68) across all 82, along with a few shootout wins, would yield something around a 105 point season, just a hair ahead of what Chicago earned for 4th place in the Western Conference last spring.

In other words, with a relatively healthy lineup and decent, but not spectacular goaltending, the Predators have played like a strong playoff contender, not just a hopeful. And while there are legitimate questions about how well they can keep up the scoring pace, there is also upside on the defensive side of the puck. Pekka Rinne (.905) and Dan Ellis (.910) can both do better in terms of save percentage; even a modest improvement there would balance out any expected decline in goal-scoring from the forwards.

In NASCAR, they like to use the phrase "drive it like you stole it." For the Predators, those extra points in the standings are like stolen goods that are now stocked away safely; if they can keep up the Goals For & Against performance like they have over the last two months, those early gains could make enough of a difference to earn them home-ice advantage during the playoffs.