As we gear up for the conference finals, the road gets tougher for almost everyone. However, it’s an odd situation in the East. The Tampa Bay Lightning were the first team to qualify for the final four, even without two key players: their top scorer and captain, and their second-best defenceman.
Tampa had a simpler road to this point than most teams in recent memory, completely overmatching the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, had a similarly simple series in the first round, then took out the Presidents’ Trophy winners in six games in the second round, despite an injury to Olli Maatta and a suspension to Kris Letang.
The Penguins have undoubtedly faced a tougher route to get to this point, but a big factor here is how each team is playing heading into this series. Looking at playoff numbers only, we can see how the Penguins and Lightning compare to each other, broken down by position.
Both teams are producing fewer scoring chances than they were in the regular season, which is probably to be expected in the playoffs since teams play much tighter on defence.
The Lightning are producing more chances than the Penguins so far, but they’re getting the same amount on net, and they’ve also played weaker defensive teams. The Lightning are making more passes to the slot and moving the puck East-West a bit more, however the Penguins have a significant advantage in controlled entries, suggesting that with equal strength of opponents, Pittsburgh might be a bit more dangerous off the rush.
With the luxury of splitting Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel up into three attacking lines, and scoring chances being mostly a wash despite tougher competition, the Penguins have a significant advantage at forward unless Steven Stamkos suddenly comes back 100 per cent healthy.
THE EDGE AT FORWARD GOES TO: PITTSBURGH
The defensive breakdown between the two teams is almost a battle of two different styles of play. The Lightning defencemen move the puck more efficiently, breaking out of their own zone with possession more often, boasting a lower turnover rate (not shown on the graph), and they are more involved in creating scoring chances.
The Penguins, meanwhile, are more disruptive of the opponents’ attack, blocking more passes, and recovering more loose pucks by winning more battles in their own zone. They also dump the puck out almost twice as often, which is inefficient, but can also relieve pressure.
Considering a smooth transition game that keeps the puck in your team’s control usually leads to better offence and defence, and that Anton Stralman is likely to return early in this series, I think the Lightning have a strong advantage on defence.
THE EDGE ON DEFENCE GOES TO: TAMPA BAY
Before we dig in on the goalies, note that the y-axis is set to start at 70 per cent. This is to accentuate the differences, as going from 0-100 per cent can make it a bit more difficult, and there aren’t many goaltenders you expect to be below 70 per cent save percentage in any zone.
Goaltending in this series is experience versus youth, with two very solid, very large goalies who have been stellar in the playoffs. Bishop has been in this position before, but Matt Murray has been the star of the playoffs.
Both Murray and Bishop are above league average in five of eight zones, with Murray holding the slight edge in the Inner Slot area. Murray bests Bishop in five of the eight zones, including two of three slot zones and the Center Point, which are the four-highest shooting percentage areas.
This matchup is probably the closest of all three positional battles, but Murray has simply been better, so the advantage goes to the Penguins. Consider them the favourite to win this series.
THE EDGE IN GOAL GOES TO: PITTSBURGH