So here we are! After almost eight months of regular season and playoff hockey, we have made it to a Stanley Cup Final that not many people have predicted from the beginning. For San Jose, they came into last October with a new head coach and their best players on the wrong side of 30 years old. For Pittsburgh, they were spending more time contemplating whether then-head coach Mike Johnston could even last a second in the NHL, let alone the entirety of a hockey season.
Surely enough, the Penguins would fire Johnston on December 12th and replace him with former Boston Bruins head coach Mike Sullivan. The team has not looked back ever since by recording a 33-16-5 win-loss record and became one of the best puck possession teams in the NHL. Along with that, they were able to dismantle a very poor New York Rangers side in the first round, followed by good but flawed Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning teams in the second round and conference finals, respectively.
As for the Sharks, head coach Peter DeBoer has done a solid job getting the most out of his flawed roster. It might have taken a while to have the team performing at its best, as accounted for by their third place finish in a weak Pacific Division, but the Sharks are now running at peak condition at the right time. They first shocked everyone in the analytics community by defeating the best puck possession team in the league in the Los Angeles Kings. Afterwards, they defeated a Nashville Predators team with a ferocious power play and then beat the St. Louis Blues in the same fashion to make it to their first Stanley Cup Final.
The overall similarity for these two teams, in terms of how they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, has been how deep both teams forward lines have been. However, the way both coaches use their line combinations is where the differences start to pile up.
For the Penguins, Sullivan deploys his forwards the exact same way traditional Alain Vigenault coached teams have been used: by have three scoring lines, followed by a fourth line that’s left to hope for damage limitation. As for the defense pairs, not a single one has had a distinct characteristic about them.
Injuries and suspensions to Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley have played a huge part into those deployments for the Penguins. As a result, Pittsburgh has used 12 different pairings that have played over 10 even strength minutes together this postseason. That is a massive amount compared to San Jose’s five pairings under the same minimal requirements. With Daley being out for the rest of the postseason to a broken leg, that will really hinder Pittsburgh playing their best defensemen.
Along with that, Mike Sullivan prefers to go with veteran Justin Schultz as their seventh defenseman instead of 22-year old Derrick Pouliot. However, it would be best to go with the young puck mover instead as Pouliot has generated a +6.9-percent relative puck possession this regular season while facing much tougher zone starts than the older Schultz, who only generated a -2.1-percent relative puck possession. These numbers might be minimal as Sullivan has given limited playing time to both players this postseason, but in a series as potentially close as this one, such decisions could decide the series.
Up front, the Penguins have really used the famously named “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel to their advantage. In their 172 minutes together, the trio has scored 11 goals and given up only six, when really the scoreline should have been 7.70-7.49. Meanwhile, watch out for the Sidney Crosby-Patric Hornqvist-Conor Sheary top line and the Evgeni Malkin-Bryan Rust-Chris Kunitz third line. Both lines have generated some of the best shot attempts of any trio in the postseason and have done a tremendous job limiting events going the other way by pinning them into their own zone.
As for San Jose, my vote for the Conn Smythe trophy, so far, goes to Marc Edouard Vlasic. The 29-year old defenseman has been brilliant shutting down the opposition’s best player as evidence to his +4.92 relative-puck possession in the playoffs. Along with that, one of his greatest highlights has been limiting 40-goal scorer Vladimir Tarasenko to just two goals and zero assists in the conference finals. Let’s also not forget the solid production by Paul Martin, Brent Burns and Justin Braun. While Burns has been among the biggest reasons for San Jose’s success on the power play, his nine assists at even strength are tied for the postseason league-lead with forward teammates Joe Thornton and Logan Couture.
Along with that, the Sharks also use their top line as the team’s trusted shutdown line and going power-for-power in their line matching. The trio of Thornton, Thomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski may have given up close to 62 shot attempts per hour at even strength this postseason, but they have also generated 64.3 attempts per hour and they have let DeBoer use the rest of his top nine more in the offensive zone. Along with Couture’s high assist count, both Joonas Donskoi and Joel Ward have been able to get five postseason goals each at even strength.
Overall, San Jose has not only done a good job of outperforming the opposition in all the necessary numbers to win hockey games, but they are also performing well above their expectations. In the postseason, the Sharks have outscored their opposition 63-41. However, based on corsica.hockey‘s expected goal totals, they are really outplaying them 51.52-46.68. Some of this does have to do with the fact that Martin Jones has been great in goal for them, but most of the puck luck has to go towards their power play. In the last nine regular seasons, only Washington has outperformed San Jose on the man advantage, consistently scoring on 21-percent of their opportunities. However, that number has dropped to 17.6-percent in postseason play. This year, however, that number has improved to 27.0-percent.
Unlike previous years, San Jose’s bounces have gone their way this time around. In the past, they would usually generate one of the best shot rates with the man advantage at 110.0 score-adjusted shot attempts per hour in the last nine years. This year, that number has really dwindled to 98.4 score-adjusted attempts per hour this regular season. In this year’s playoffs, however, that number has climbed back up to 120.3 per hour. In those last nine postseasons, San Jose should have buried more than 69 goals while on the power play. Instead they scored 49. This season, San Jose’s goal count in the playoffs while on the man-advantage should have been 12.4 instead of the 16 that they have put up in total. There’s no denying the Sharks are finally getting the bounces they have deserved for too long, but maybe they should have saved some of their lucky charms for this upcoming series.
However, Pittsburgh does have the personnel to shut down a strong power play. This regular season, the Penguins have only given up 98.0 score-adjusted shot attempts per hour. That may be in the bottom half in the league in shot suppression, but like all other stats, the Penguins continued to improve the more the roster has gotten used to Mike Sullivan’s systems. Since his hiring on December 12th, the Penguins have improved dramatically while shorthanded and improved the shot suppression to 92.1 attempts per hour.
Meanwhile, San Jose will hope to avoid getting into the penalty box as their shot suppression continues to be below average. In comparison to the regular season, the Sharks have given up 107.7 score-adjusted shot attempts per hour versus their 99.6 score-adjusted attempts per hour in the regular season. Even so, San Jose should still be giving up 7.11 goals from the penalty kill this postseason. Instead, they have given up 10.
With such a close match-up at even strength, this could end up being a deciding factor of the postseason.
As soon as I was about to write a conclusion that I was pretty set with, I could see the other team pulling it off. For a neutral, that is a very good sign and many hope to see a great series full of star players. While Thornton and Marleau hope to win their first Stanley Cup after more than a decade and a half of trying, Crosby, Malkin and Letang hope to cement their legacies as some of the best players of their era.
It will certainly be a nervy final and the injury to Trevor Daley will absolutely hurt the Penguins on the defensive end. Still, I can’t help but feel like consistency will be the name of the game and that San Jose could regress to the mean in the worst way possible. I wouldn’t be surprised on any outcome, but somebody has got to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Pittsburgh in Seven