The Pittsburgh Penguins are two victories away from winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup, and have two of the next four potential games in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators on home ice.
Pittsburgh last lost a playoff series in April of 2015, having just reeled off seven straight series victories. Two more wins against the Predators and the Penguins will become the first repeat champions since the Detroit Red Wings in the late 90's. Those peripherals are probably enough to inspire a great deal of confidence in most observers.
But below the surface, the Penguins are—for the second time in the past three rounds—getting visibly outplayed by their opponent. Through nine periods of the Final, the Predators have out-shot the Penguins at even-strength 80-59, out attempted them 142-105, and have, with the exception of all but two periods this series (one being the third of Game 3 in which Nashville held a 3 – and quickly-turned 4-1 lead) out-shot and out attempted Pittsburgh.
Which begs two questions: How are the Penguins again in the driver's of a series in which they are being outplayed, and, are the Penguins actually in the driver's seat?
There have been different rationales for how Nashville has carried play for this long and is still trailing. When it comes to the shot disparity, after Game 1—the one where Pittsburgh went through a 37-minute stretch without a shot on goal—Sidney Crosby said part of what contributed to the Penguins low total was missed shots. (The same tweet points out the Penguins missed two shots.)
Another argument has been that while the Predators have produced the shot quantity, Pittsburgh has been better about shot quality. In each of the first three games, Nashville has produced more scoring chances than the Penguins and had more scoring chances that produced a shot on goal, according to Andrew Berkshire. So, again, none of this supports a narrative that the shot totals are masking some other facet that in large is buoying the Penguins and is hurting the Predators.
But the one battle the Penguins were undoubtedly winning through two games was the one in the crease. Following Game 2, Pittsburgh's Matt Murray had stopped 60 of 64 shots (a save percentage of .938) while Pekka Rinne was 28 of 36 (.778).
In Game 3 that gigantic disparity started to even out. Rinne, riding a ridiculous .941 save percentage through the first three rounds into the Cup Final, saw his save percentage dip by 12 points after two games against the Penguins. But he bounced back in the first Stanley Cup Final game ever played on Nashville ice, stopping 27 of 28 shots.
Murray was also outperforming his own standards, even the lofty ones he set when he led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2016. Through seven playoff games (five against the Senators, two against the Predators) Murray actually had a higher save percentage than Rinne, sitting at .943. In Game 3, the balloon finally popped and Murray surrendered five goals on 33 shots, seeing his save percentage dip 13 points—almost an identical regression to Rinne's.
"I don't want to blame the first two losses on puck luck, but it didn't bounce our way all the time," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said after Game 3. "We ended up walking away with nothing."
The difference from a team perspective is, where the Penguins have received strong goaltending this postseason—be it from Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury—it's come in tandem with outscoring their opponents while being outshot. Against the Washington Capitals, the Penguins jumped out to a 3-1 series lead despite the Capitals nearly doubling them in shot attempts those four games (242-129) and outshooting them 109-66. The difference? The Capitals had a 5-on-5 save percentage of .879, Pittsburgh was scoring on over 12 percent of its shots, and Fleury stood at .945.
And there's an argument to be made if any team in the NHL can sustain this kind of stretch, it's Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phill Kessel are elite offensive players. Jake Guentzel is having one of the best postseasons of any rookie forward, ever. If there's any team that can throw fewer punches but still land just as many knockouts because it throws a more efficient jab, the Penguins certainly fit that mold.
But what we also know is that results tend to regulate based on these shot metrics and, it's difficult to win in stretches, even abbreviated ones like a seven-game series—when the shot counter is firmly favoring your opposition.
There have been two series of 15 in which the team that led in shots on goal did not lead in attempts, but both teams that recorded more attempts in those series (Ottawa versus New York; Nashville versus St. Louis) won their series.
And overall, there have been six series in which a team has averaged at least four more shots and at least eight more attempts per game than their opponents (including the Cup Final), what could be considered an appreciable gap. Of the five that have been decided, three have been won by the team on the short side of the shot chart.
The Penguins themselves have been a part of four of the six series, and represent two of the three outshot teams to pull out a series victory. Of the outliers, they're the majority; the parts have constituted a bizarre playoff run that has involved outscoring while taking fewer shots.
If this trend continues, the Penguins will again have to bank on bucking conventional shot-trends in the name of winning hockey games. But if luck is finally running out on Pittsburgh, the Predators could find themselves with the edge in this series.