Stanley Cup Finals Analysis - Free
The Penguins find themselves back in the Stanley Cup Finals with a chance to be the first repeat champions since the Red Wings accomplished that feat in 1997 and 1998.
Pittsburgh's path to the Finals was an interesting one. They dominated the Jackets in Round 1 en route to a five-game victory; however, the story was much different in Round 2 against the President's Trophy Champion, Capitals. According to the expected goals model developed by @DTMAboutHeart, the Penguins would have been expected to have been outscored by more than five goals in their seven-game series against Washington. It was the second-most lopsided series of the postseason, but despite getting badly outplayed for the large majority, the Penguins emerged victorious in seven games, largely in part due to great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury.
Part of what makes the NHL Playoffs arguably the most exciting playoffs in pro sports is the fact that there is so much variance in hockey. You often hear the phrase “anybody can win” and while that is true in all pro sports, it is truer in the NHL. There are fewer scoring events than in any other pro sports league, which makes luck a bigger factor than in other sports. Pittsburgh's series against Washington was evidence of that. Despite being hemmed in their own end more often than not, the Penguins combined timely goals with unreal goaltending from their backup goalie (who could be a starter on many other teams) to scrape by Washington.
Pittsburgh almost caught the opposite side of the coin in their third round matchup against an inferior Senators squad, but once again, they found a way to prevail. The Pens were deserved winners—dominating expected goals, scoring chances, and puck possession for the majority of the series—but it still came down to double overtime in the seventh game, in which Chris Kunitz iced the game on a beautiful feed from Sidney Crosby.
Unlike the Penguins, the Predators won the expected goals matchup in all three of their series, although the numbers were close enough that any of those series could have gone the other way.
Nashville disposed of Chicago, the top team in the West (via regular season standings, not our model), in a clean sweep, despite winning the series expected goals battle by just 1.37 goals. While Nashville was deserving of that series victory, a clean sweep was made possible by some unexpectedly great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, who has been continuously regressing ever since hip surgery a few years ago.
Nashville then went on to dispose of the St. Louis Blues in six games, in a similar fashion to their disposal of Chicago in the first round. Expected goals suggest that the series could have easily gone six games, but once again, Nashville's penchant to pull out close games was prevalent. The Preds also received stellar goaltending for a second-straight series as they limited the Blues to just 11 goals in six games.
Finally, the Preds took on the Ducks in the Western Conference Finals. And for a third time in the playoffs, the Predators pulled out a series win in a series where they were the better team by the slimmest of margins. It didn't come without its price though. Lost for the playoffs was Nashville's top center, Ryan Johansen, which could prove to be a major issue against the Penguins, who just so happen to boast arguably the top center in the world at the moment.
So what do we make of this Penguins/Predators matchup?
Well, it should be fun. And it's certainly a matchup of contrasting styles.
Pittsburgh is built on offensive firepower, but they are severely lacking on the back-end. Justin Schultz returned to their lineup for Game 7 against Ottawa, which was a big boost to their defense, but stud defenceman Kris Letang is still sorely missed. Players like Ron Hainsey and Brian Dumoulin are logging heavy ice-time for the Pens, and that is simply not ideal.
If there's one area of this Pens team that is weak, it is certainly the blue line, and Nashville will do their best to make Pittsburgh's defensemen work in their own zone. As mentioned earlier, Johansen's injury is a major blow to the Preds, but Nashville still boasts some top offensive talent in Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, and James Neal. At the end of the day though, this Predators offensive core is thin, and they simply do not match up well with the endless depth that the Pens can throw out at forward, especially if Patric Hornqvist is ready to return to the lineup. Nashville will also need Mike Fisher to return at center as soon as possible in order to match the depth that the Pens have down the middle of the ice.
While Nashville's offensive depth may be lacking, their defensive depth certainly is not. Goaltender Pekka Rinne struggled with rebound control in the Conference Finals against Anaheim (and for the better part of the past two seasons), but you wouldn't know it because Nashville's defensemen did an outstanding job of clearing the front of the net. With a top four defensive core of P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and Roman Josi logging heavy minutes, the Preds boast a loaded blue line. And while Nashville's forwards may struggle to generate opportunities, this is a defense core that is more than capable of generating offense as well.
Goaltending is often a difference maker in the NHL (it's not hard to see that a handful of series were stolen by great goaltending this year alone), and this is where the Pens probably have their biggest edge. Again, Rinne has played well for the most part in this postseason, but we put more stock in larger sample sizes, and Rinne simply has not been good for a long time now. Matt Murray, on the other hand, has been fantastic for a while. Preds fans will be hoping that Rinne can somehow continue his good form for one more series because they'll need him to be on top of his game against all of Pittsburgh's offensive firepower.
At the end of the day, Pittsburgh is the favorite. They are marginally the better team right now, with the better goaltender, and with home-ice advantage. It's possible that back-to-back seven game series are taking their toll on the Pens (and we really will never know one way or the other), but this is their Cup to lose. In 50,000 simulations of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Penguins emerge victorious 61.5% of the time, with the most likely outcome being Pittsburgh to win in seven games (20.4%).
Here is a full breakdown of the probabilities of each team winning the Stanley Cup: