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The Numbers Behind Good Starts

western michigan bench (Matt Christians) Matt Christians

Western Michigan is off to a terrific start to their season. They’re 5-2-1 early in the year, and look like a lock to surpass last year’s total of eight wins. The big difference is that Western Michigan has been scoring goals so far this year. Granted, their early season schedule has been lighter than their schedule will be in total, with former CCHA foes Ferris State, Bowling Green, and Miami all being much more disappointing than expected. But the Broncos are averaing 4.125 goals per game so far this season, after averaging 2.222 goals last year.

That turnaround is most evident in the stat line of sophomore forward Matheson Iacopelli. Iacopelli has potential as a big goal scorer. He scored 41 goals for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL in 2013-2014 and was a third round draft choice of the Chicago Blackhawks later in 2014. But his rookie year in Kalamazoo was a struggle. He scored just one goal on 45 shots on goal for a paltry 2.2% shooting percentage. This year, he’s nearly matched that shot total in eight games with 40 shots on goal already, and he’s been rewarded with nine goals, which ties him for second in the nation in that stat.

The nation’s leading scorer is Union’s Mike Vecchione who has a 14-10-24 scoring line through 11 games this year for the Dutchmen. He’s six points ahead of second place, his linemate Spencer Foo, and at least eight points better than any other player in the country. There’s a bunch of players tied for 17th in the country scoring that have half as many points as Vecchione.

Given that Vecchione has turned down NHL free agent opportunities to return to Union for his senior year, you can probably already start engraving his name in the Hobey Baker award.

But the most interesting thing to watch with him this year is that with 24 points in 11 games, he’s averaging 2.18 points/gm. Averaging two points per game over the course of an entire season is kind of a mythical mark that has only been hit once—by Johnny Gaudreau—in the past decade. New Hampshire’s Andrew Poturalski was able to keep on pace until about mid-December last year, but eventually finished at 1.4/gm.

Penn State is off to a fast start this year. They’re 7-1-1, and currently sit in 2nd-place in the very early Pairwise Rankings. What’s impressive about the way Penn State has done that so far is the way they’ve just suffocated their opponents with shots. Penn State is averaging a national-best 45 shots on goal per game, while only allowing about 25. Outshooting opponents by 20 shots on goal per game is the best number in the country, and eight better than second place.

That isn’t a huge surprise. Penn State’s shoot-it-from-anywhere strategy regularly produces some crazy shots on goal for numbers. They’re almost always one of the outliers in my ‘shots on goal margin is a decent indicator of success’ theory.

This isn’t the first time Penn State has looked really good early in the season against weak non-conference teams, and in past years they’ve struggled late in the year when the competition got tougher. There’s still a chance they fade at the end—their second half schedule is loads tougher than their first half. But the Nittany Lions have series coming up against Alaska-Anchorage and Arizona State, which should rack up some more easy wins and inflate their stat numbers even higher before starting Big Ten play at home against a Michigan team that is among the worst in the country in possession stats.

Bemidji State is fourth overall in the Pairwise Rankings thanks to an 8-0-0 start in WCHA play, which is just barely good enough to be the winning percentage a WCHA team needs to stay in the conversation for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Beavers have 20 conference games left on their schedule and need to win just three to match last season’s win total in the league.

They’re outscoring opponents 25-6 in league play, which means they’re allowing less than a goal per game against WCHA opponents.

One team that helped Bemidji State to those stellar defensive numbers in Northern Michigan. The Wildcats were scoreless for the weekend against the Beavers earlier this year, and were shut out again against Wisconsin last Saturday. That was the fourth time Northern Michigan failed to score a goal in a game this year, in just ten games played. The Wildcats did get two goals from preseason all-WCHA forward Dominik Shine—who sat out his team’s first six games—on Friday.