It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that the team which has only played 16 games in this postseason as it rumbled to its first-ever Stanley Cup Final should be seen as a favorite.
You look at the basic numbers and you say, “Oh yes, this is a dominant team.” Four losses, only three in regulation, out of 16 games is a really good number. They’re a plus-18 on goal difference, though that obviously includes some empty-netters and so on. They’ve scored the third-most goals in the playoffs, and allowed only eight more than the Columbus Blue Jackets did in the first round alone.
The goaltending and defense would appear to be where the Nashville Predators have dined out — their dominant top-four keeps things simple in front of Pekka Rinne, who’s been brilliant — but the quality of that offense is easy to overlook. Put it all together, and you can see how they got where they are: When adjusting for score and venue, they’re the fourth-best corsi team in the entire playoffs, let alone among those that made the conference finals. They generate a respectable offense, but few teams match their defensive prowess when it comes to keeping attempts away from the net.
It’s interesting, because Rinne’s 5-on-5 save percentage on high-danger chances is one of the lowest in this postseason, which you perhaps wouldn’t have anticipated, so it’s not like he’s really standing on his head. The team in front of him is simply asking him to stop far fewer difficult shots than most other teams.
And then, on the other bench, there’s Pittsburgh. Again. They worked their way through a slog of a Eastern Conference Final, as taxing as it was intentionally dull, to earn the right to face a rested, vicious Predator team for which everything has gone right this entire postseason.
The problem with the Penguins is obvious: They could barely impress against a weak Ottawa Senators team that got by MacGuyver style, cobbling together wins any way they could get them. Let’s put it this way: Ottawa made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final despite a minus-3 goal differential for the entire postseason.
And we all know what the problem is, of course. Despite being one of the league’s best expected-goals teams in the regular season, the Penguins were not only hit by the injury bug, but run over repeatedly by the injury bug and all his friends in their motorcycle gang. It seemed like every single game, some new Penguin was picking up an injury that would sideline him for at least a game or three.
We can illustrate the Penguins’ injury problems, as if they really needed further illustration, thusly: Brian Dumoulin is by far the most-used player on the roster in this postseason. Tells you everything, really.
Look, the Pens absolutely crushed the Blue Jackets for much of the series. Huge advantage in shots on goal, huge advantage in actual goals, huge advantage in expected goals, and yet, we all fundamentally understand why this took so long. The skill is lacking in comparison with what it should be. The skill players are worn down to nubs by what hockey fans accustomed to European soccer terms would call “cynical hockey” or “anti-hockey.” Mike Sullivan’s handling the cards as quickly and expertly as he can, but what are you supposed to do when this is what you’re being dealt?
The trend of what happens when the Penguins, in their current clobbered state, play elite teams was obvious in the Washington series. They got stomped everywhere but on the scoreboard, which at the end of the day is all that really matters, but it was a harbinger of things to come.
Against Ottawa they had the better of most of their games, clearly. Even by the eye test, you knew, “Oh the Pens should have won this one.” But as we saw in the Washington series, “should have” has very little to do with it at this time of year, so while it’s easy enough to spend the bulk of a series pushing around a thin team like Ottawa — check those on/off splits for Erik Karlsson to learn everything you ever needed about why that team got as far as it did and also fell short like it did — the Predators are a different proposition entirely.
In large part because of all the injuries, but also because of how badly Washington trucked the Penguins in possession, only three Pittsburgh forwards are even above water in adjusted corsi-for at this point in the playoffs. That’s a stunningly low number, especially for a team this clearly talented. This is where the loss of Kris Letang hurts them the most; they can manufacture goals through Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s lines, but they perhaps don’t have the horses to get themselves unstuck from their own zone when things get bad.
Again, the Penguins carried an obvious advantage against Ottawa but were so lacking around the goal (except in Game 5, when everything went wrong at once for the Senators) that these games were closer than they had any right to be. A fully or even moderately healthy Pittsburgh team routs those Senators in five games and no one ever thinks about them again. But the fact that the Pens let them hang around, while not necessarily an indictment, tells the story.
Against a team with an actual good roster? I dunno that there’s much of a way forward. Peter Laviolette has the huge advantage of deploying P.K. Subban as his shutdown guy (more minutes against tougher competition, look it up) and Subban is destroying all comers. Head-to-head against Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, he humiliated them (to be fair, his teammates did the same to the rest of the Chicago roster). Head-to-head against Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, those guys got almost nothing. Head-to-head against Ryan Getzlaf, you know that story too.
That Subban has gone head-to-head against all these titanic scorers and ran them right into the iceberg. He’s current at 54-plus percent corsi with the most 5-on-5 minutes and toughest opponents Laviolette can find. Take your “He’s a No. 4” and jump in the nearest large body of water.
The reason Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis get to run a little more wild in higher-leverage scoring situations is because Subban and Matthias Ekholm are out there eating every opponent’s lunch. And if that shutdown pairing is bullying some of the game’s brighter offensive stars, it seems as though things will probably go similarly against Crosby or Malkin since they don’t have the support coming out of their own end that Duncan Keith, Colton Parayko, or Hampus Lindholm provide.
The Penguins have two lines with unquestionably elite players, but there’s a reason Subban and Ekholm are plus-11 and plus-10, respectively, in the goals department against other lines with unquestionably elite players this postseason. They’re just at the top of their game right now.
The deeper you go down these lineups, the more you see Nashville has an edge on its already-tough opponents until you get pretty deep far the depth chart. Mix in the Pens’ injury woes and what’s that does to the blue line in particular, and you see what to expect. The loss of Nashville’s top two centers and a very impressive young winger in Kevin Fiala hurts, but as long as they have that defense pushing the puck up the ice, this seems like it’s another series the Pens might be able to squeak out, but they’d need a whole lot to go their way.
The ability to hang in there with Washington isn’t something that’s built to last. Just given the overarching situation in this Stanley Cup Final — how well seemingly everyone on Nashville is playing right now, how banged-up and not-rested these Pens are after two straight seven-game series — it would be quite the surprise if the Predators don’t win.
I’d take Nashville in six. It just seems like there’s too much for the Penguins to overcome.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.
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