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Behind The Numbers

Breaking down Oilers' fast start

Statistics suggest Edmonton's success may not be sustainable

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

In every NHL season, there are at least a couple of teams that get off to a surprising start. In some cases, it's one of the new contenders breaking from the pack; in others, it's an otherwise average team enjoying an early streak of puck luck.

Through 10 games, the Edmonton Oilers are 7-2-1, a .750 points percentage that ranks second to the Montreal Canadiens (9-0-1, .950) after a 3-0 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday.

But after the Oilers lost their past two games, in which category do they belong?

There's every reason to be skeptical of Edmonton's hot start, because the Oilers have done this before. In 2011-12, Edmonton was 8-2-2 through Nov. 3, an identical .750 percentage. After that, it was an NHL-worst 24-38-8.

There's no question the Oilers have improved; the question is, to what extent? Forward Connor McDavid and defenseman Oscar Klefbom are back after having missed 37 and 52 games because of injury last season. The additions of Adam Larsson and Kris Russell upgraded the defense. Milan Lucic was signed to replace Taylor Hall on left wing, rookie forward Jesse Puljujarvi made his debut, and the young players continue to develop.

Video: EDM@VAN: McDavid shows off speed, finishes five-hole

But Edmonton's improvement isn't enough to go from worst to first in the Pacific Division.

Statistically, there are a few ways to identify which teams have been on the right side of the bounces, and in each case the Oilers' initial run of good luck has started to turn against them.

The first method is to look at the margin of victory. There's a big difference between teams that are winning games by multiple goals and those that are squeaking out a string of shootout victories. The former teams tend to stay strong; the latter tend to have their records even out over the long run.

After Edmonton won its first four one-goal games (not counting empty-net goals), it lost its next two.

Video: CGY@EDM: Puljujarvi scores first career goal

As for its schedule, eight of Edmonton's first 10 games were against a team that didn't qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. Starting Thursday at the New York Rangers (7 p.m. ET; SN360, MSG, NHL.TV), the Oilers play 10 straight against playoff teams, with seven of those 10 games on the road.

One of the most reliable ways to figure out if a team will stay strong is to see if it is controlling play. Statistically, that's estimated using shot attempts and zone starts.

Going 7-1-0 in their first eight games, the Oilers were outattempted 361-323 at even strength, for an SAT of minus-38 that ranked 26th in the NHL.

In zone starts, 136 of Edmonton's faceoffs occurred in the defensive zone and 108 in the offensive zone through eight games. That's a zone start percentage of 44.26 percent, which also ranked 26th.

These two metrics suggest the Oilers were not controlling play, even when they were winning.

The only way for a team to win when it's being outplayed and outshot is to score on a higher percentage of its opportunities than its opponent. That is exactly what Edmonton managed to do initially, but that trend has started to reverse.

Video: EDM@VAN: Lucic doubles lead with late empty-net goal

Through their first eight games, the Oilers scored on 29 of their 229 shots, a .127 shooting percentage that ranked second in the NHL. In their past two games, they scored on two of their 83 shots (.024), dropping them to 9.9 percent for the season.

As for Edmonton's opponents: They scored on 17 of their 260 shots through the first eight games, a .065 shooting percentage. In Edmonton's past two games, the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs combined for five goals on 53 shots (9.4 percent). That raised the opposition's shooting percentage against Edmonton to 7.0 percent through its first 10 games.

In terms of shooting percentage, the Oilers initially had an advantage of 6.2 percent through their first eight games. Two games later, that gap has narrowed to 2.9 percent.

Teams sometimes can get an edge in shooting percentage during a short stretch of games; however, over the long run, parity will prevail and the percentages will even out. Last season, no team completed its 82-game schedule with an advantage as high as 2.0 percent.

Putting the entire picture together, the Oilers' hot start has been a combination of several factors, including a favorable schedule, great shooting, spectacular goaltending and psychological factors that can't be captured statistically. As a general rule, these situations rarely last for the long term.

Video: EDM@TOR: Nurse's wrister through traffic evens score

Given the modest preseason assessment of the Oilers and their failure to control the puck or to keep the play in the offensive zone, it's likely they are starting to drift back into the pack now that their initial run of puck luck is starting to fade.

Even if that proves to be the case, this hot start could be enough to make a big difference in the Western Conference wild-card race in April, and the Oilers could end a 10-year postseason drought, the longest in NHL history.

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