The Stanley Cup Final has been set, with the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins preparing to faceoff in the battle of yellow. The two clubs are more banged up than we usually see for Stanley Cup finalists, with the Penguins suffering injuries on defence and the Predators at forward.
The odd opposite injury situations presents an interesting question about what’s more valuable in the playoffs: Strength at forward (specifically at centre) or defence? Both teams have proven the value of each position through a three-round gauntlet, but now face the ultimate test.
To see who has the advantage, let’s break the teams down by position and game state.
One thing to note between these two teams is that throughout the playoffs the Penguins have had success by being a high event team, while the Predators were successful as a low event team.
As you’d expect from those situations, the Penguins’ forwards have created far more offence at even strength than the Predators, and the Predators’ forwards should struggle a bit more this series without Ryan Johansen to lead the centre group. The Predators did score in bunches against the Ducks in two games without Johansen, but a full seven-game series is a different animal.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin alone lead me to give the Penguins the advantage at forward. That’s before adding Phil Kessel, and the Predators being without Johansen, Kevin Fiala, and possibly Mike Fisher and Craig Smith.
It’s no surprise the Predators have generated more offence from the back end and been better at winning the puck in their own zone and clearing it. Nashville’s defencemen are also a bit more physical than the Penguins, with Pittsburgh preferring to stick check more often.
The Predators’ defencemen are more active in their own zone in general despite spending less time there than the Penguins have through three rounds.
Despite the loss of Kris Letang before the playoffs, the Penguins’ defencemen have been getting the job done by committee. They’re obviously not as good as Nashville there, but the gap isn’t quite as cavernous as you would imagine.
This gets a bit tricky because Matt Murray has barely played in the playoffs, so I included the latter half of the regular season for him.
If we were comparing only regular seasons, Murray would be far and away the superior goaltender heading into this series, but Pekka Rinne has been attempting to re-write the record books this post-season with a ridiculous .941 save percentage.
Rinne has seen his save percentage drop in each series he’s played so far, but while he has faced relatively few challenging shots behind Nashville’s amazing defensive structure, he was the biggest reason they were able to put the Ducks away in Game 6 which was a subpar performance by his team. He may have had it easy, but he’s stepped up when needed.
Over an extended period of time I’d bet on Murray, but Rinne is riding a crazy hot streak. I think this one is a wash.
EVEN STRENGTH OVERALL
If there was ever a team that has gamed Corsi in the playoffs, it’s this year’s Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve been thoroughly out-possessed, yet owned the high danger scoring chance differentials by the highest mark of any team in the playoffs.
While the Penguins have owned the scoring chance counts, the perimeter shots have hurt them at even strength, where they’ve been outscored during the playoffs. Luckily for them their power play has been fantastic because Nashville should be the better even strength team.
On special teams the same dichotomy exists as what we see at even strength, with the Penguins being the better offensive team, and the Predators being much better defensively.
Once again we’re at a bit of an impasse here in terms of who has the advantage. The series in a nutshell is offence vs. defence, so your personal preference may factor in to whom you give the advantage.
The Predators’ advantage at controlling play at even strength should give them a bit of a leg up in the series, but let’s remember most of the games where they produced these numbers were with their top centre in the lineup.
The loss of Johansen looms large here, and it takes what would be a toss up series in my opinion to a slight advantage for the Penguins. The duo of Crosby and Malkin nullifies the Predators’ advantage of two top pairings on defence. This combination creates a situation the Predators haven’t really had to deal with in facing two first lines with their two top defence pairs.
Over a seven-game series without Johansen, that should create enough of an advantage for the Penguins to win the series.