A narrative that may not receive as much attention as the injury bugs ravaging these two teams, the Nashville Predators are a team built upon advanced statistics while the Pittsburgh Penguins have disregarded the new wave of data in their march to the Stanley Cup Finals. They have won despite getting thoroughly outplayed for long stretches of time, especially in their first two series this postseason.
Perhaps it was most evident by the eye test in their series against the Washington Capitals, but the Penguins have struggled heavily in possession these playoffs. Furthermore, while many have been citing their strength of having Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby down the middle as insurmountable, neither of them have been monsters at even strength.
Accordingly, the numbers show that, while Pittsburgh may be generating offense, it is in no part due to solid 5v5 play.
For a team with such strength down the middle, one might expect for the Penguins to be, well, not terrible at 5v5 hockey. Nevertheless, most of the Penguins’ strength in 5v5 numbers has come when the game isn’t particularly close. The Predators are already the better 5v5 team without reducing the advanced statistics to situations within one goal, but the Penguins do no appear to excel in at even strength.
In fact, the only team the Penguins are better than at CF% in the playoffs are the St. Louis Blues. in FF%, the Penguins are also better than the Edmonton Oilers. That’s right, in CF%, the Penguins rank 15th of all 16 playoff teams. In FF%, they’re 14th.
However, something of note is how, in all 5v5 scenarios, the Penguins have simply higher numbers in each category, with the exception of the percentages. This is because the Penguins drive the play and create a lot of back-and-forth rushes. Simply put, when the Penguins play, there is a lot of action.
On the other hand, the Predators, while a fine counterattacking team in their own right (thank you, Colton Sissons), the constant back-and-forth is not necessarily a trademark of their style of play. For example, when trying to advance the puck in the neutral zone, the Predators forwards are fine just playing the puck back to their defense, passing among each other until the ideal opportunity opens itself up. Accordingly, there is simply less action.
Being able to play the puck back to the defense is not perhaps a luxury the Penguins feel they have. Sure, the Predators have the best top-four defensive group in the world, but the Penguins are simply so decimated from injuries in the back end that it simply does not make sense to play the puck back. Rather, the Penguins want to play the puck forward and press the tempo, letting Malkin and Crosby handle the puck.
While the the Penguins have been praised for creating plenty of high danger scoring chances despite their lack of possession, a deeper look shows that they are not as dominant in this area as people would have you think. Second after the Anaheim Ducks, the Penguins have created 158 high danger scoring chances. Nevertheless, that comes with a bit of a caveat once more, as they have also given up 154 high danger scoring chances, good for a 50.64 HDCF%. The Predators? Fourth in the playoffs with a 53.09 HDCF%. While the Penguins may have scored 20 goals from those 158 high danger chances, the Predators also scored 20 high danger goals, but only off of 129 chances.
Furthermore, the Penguins have yet to face a group of defensemen even remotely as talented as the Predators’, so those high danger chances should not come as frequently this series.
Where the Penguins really are going to be dangerous is on the powerplay. They lead all playoff teams with 14 powerplay goals and are carrying a 25.0% conversion rate on the powerplay into the Stanley Cup Finals. If the Nashville Predators can stay out of the box and force the Penguins to play 5 on 5 hockey, they should have a good series.
Nearly every advanced statistic points tips in the Predators’ favor. Corsi, fenwick, high danger chances. All of them. There are still critics out there who prefer to use stats such as +/-, but even the Penguins are +14 to the Predators’ +18. Name a metric used to measure teams and it will likely favor the Nashville Predators. If the Predators maintain their statistical dominance and win the Stanley Cup, it will finally be proven once and for all that advanced statistics are the numbers that differentiate good hockey teams for great ones.