Stanley Cup Final: Analytics say Penguins vs. Predators outcome is a coin-flip

Monday May 29th, 2017

This Stanley Cup Final matchup is full of great story lines: The Penguins’ quest to be the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. P.K. Subban’s response to the ridiculous criticisms that he’s weak defensively and that his “clown” antics will get in the way of winning hockey games. Nashville’s amazingly, wonderfully bonkers fans. The oddly ubiquitous presence of yellow in a Stanley Cup Final.

Pittsburgh Penguins [111 points] vs. Nashville Predators [94 points]

Prediction: Penguins (52.0%)

We think the most interesting and most important story line is a twist on the old cliché that defense wins championships. During both the regular season and playoffs Pittsburgh led the league in offense. And now that Nashville’s top four defenseman—Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis—are healthy, the Predators counter with the best blue line corps in the league. A classic best offense versus best defense match-up.

We think the offense vs. defense match-up, and probably the outcome of the series, revolves around whether Nashville will be able to execute its core game plan of suppressing the number of high danger scoring chances that Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and the rest of Pittsburgh’s shot quality-over-quantity offense thrives on.

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Illustrated Review: Predators’ defense has tall task in containing Penguins’ Crosby, Malkin

The reason it’s so pivotal is Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne. He’s a frontrunner for the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, and no doubt he’s a big reason the Predators have made it two rounds further than they ever did before trading the serious and hard nosed Shea Weber for the fun-loving Subban. But Rinne’s Achilles’ heel is high danger scoring chances. Sure, by definition, all goalies do worse against high danger scoring chances than regular shots—that’s the definition of high danger chances. But Rinne struggles with them much more than most. During the regular season, out of 41 goalies with 1500+ minutes, Rinne had the fifth-worst high danger chance save percentage in all situations, at 77.97%, per corsica.hockey.

So far in the playoffs, Rinne’s high danger save percentage in all situations has been a ridiculous 89.93% (data courtesy of naturalstattrick.com). But that’s just not sustainable—the highest high danger save percentage in the league in the regular season was Sergei Bobrovsky’s 85.41%. Rinne’s been on fire, but Nashville can’t bank on that hot streak continuing.

So the key for Nashville is keeping the Penguins from getting too many of those top-notch chances. Unfortunately for the Preds, Pittsburgh racked up high danger scoring chances like they were going out of style. During the regular season they were top-ranked at 13.05 per 60 minutes. To make matters worse for Nashville, the Penguins’ shooting percentage on those high danger chances was fourth in the league at 14.92.

Fortunately for Nashville, their defense, possibly because of Rinne’s struggles, is built around preventing just those types of quality chances. During the regular season the Preds allowed the fourth-fewest high danger chances, at a stingy 9.34 per 60 minutes.

The Final is going to come down to which team can impose its style of play. Our model says this one is perilously close to a coin toss. The model gives Pittsburgh a big boost from its 17 more regular season points, and its solid advantage in high danger scoring chance differential (+112 versus +36 for Nashville), but that’s offset a little by Nashville’s one more point over the last 25 games of the regular season and the Predators' slightly better penalty kill (80.8% vs. 79.8%). The last two of the variables in our model, ESVA Corsi and our DOHA luck score were almost a wash.

Crunching the numbers, the model says the Penguins have a 52.0% chance of raising the Cup for the second consecutive year. But maybe if the Preds can keep the Penguins’ offensive stars far enough away from Rinne, they can buck the odds and bring Lord Stanley's Cup to Music City for the first time.

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If you want to know which city the kids think will be hosting a victory parade, you can find out here.

The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand the game of hockey. Its three founders are Ian Cooper, a lawyer, former player agent and Wharton Business School graduate; Dr. Phil Curry, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo; and IJay Palansky, a litigation partner at the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale, former high-stakes professional poker player, and Harvard Law School graduate. Please visit us online at www.depthockeyanalytics.com

Dr. Mikal Skuterud is a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo.

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