The 2016 Stanley Cup Final is here. Game 1 is tonight, and the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks will do battle on a sheet of ice in order to hoist hockey’s most coveted trophy.
For the Sharks, history is on the line. The franchise has never won a Stanley Cup, and storied veterans such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are nearing the end of their careers, without ever earning that elusive ring.
For the Penguins, there are legacies to keep in mind. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have a chance to win their second Stanley Cup before the age of 30.
The storylines and narratives are rich headed into tonight’s match up, and there’s no denying that this should be an exciting series full of close games and excellent hockey. Both teams are full of high-end talent, and both teams play a fast brand of hockey that allows skilled players to flourish.
So which team has the edge?
For the 2016 NHL Playoffs, I’ve used a logistic regression model to predict playoff series, and the model has done incredibly well for itself, going 13-1 through the first three rounds. Using even strength and special teams metrics, the model gives a probability that the selected team will win a seven game series against a selected opponent.
Looking at the numbers for San Jose and Pittsburgh can show us which team has the edge, and why.
Pittsburgh Goals For percentage: 55.2 percent
San Jose Goals For percentage: 52.7 percent
Pittsburgh post-trade deadline Corsi For percentage: 56.4 percent
San Jose post-trade deadline Corsi For percentage: 54.8 percent
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the league’s best 5-on-5 teams ever since Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench. Their full season Goals For percentage of 55.2 percent was sixth best in the league, but under Sullivan, the Penguins have scored 57 percent of the goals at even strength, good for No. 1.
The Penguins have also been dominant when it comes to shot attempt metrics, with their post-trade deadline Corsi For percentage ranking third in the league behind Los Angeles and St. Louis (two teams San Jose managed to beat).
The Sharks have been just as dominant when fully healthy. Logan Couture missed 30 games during the regular season due to injury, but since his return to the lineup on Dec. 30, the Sharks have an incredible Goals For percentage of 57.3 percent, which is just a tad better than Pittsburgh’s 57 percent.
Their post-trade deadline Corsi For percentage of 54.8 percent ranked fourth, just behind Pittsburgh. The Sharks have been an equally dominant 5-on-5 team, with a deep forward group and shutdown defensive corps.
Using full season statistics for Goals For percentage, the model gives a slight edge to Pittsburgh.
Using the numbers from the Sullivan era for Pittsburgh, and since Couture’s return to health for San Jose, however, makes Pittsburgh’s advantage almost insignificant.
In fact, the model gives Pittsburgh a 0.4 percent advantage at 5-on-5, which is so small that it likely won’t even have a difference over a seven game series.
The Sharks and Penguins are evenly matched at 5-on-5, and the difference makers will likely be the goaltenders. Martin Jones and Matt Murray have each put together strong playoffs, but whichever can perform better over the course of the series will likely give their team the even strength edge.
A quick and cursory glance at special teams numbers would likely give the edge to Pittsburgh.
The Sharks may have one of the league’s best power plays, but their penalty kill is one of the weaker units in the league, while the Penguins had an average power play and a very strong penalty kill.
One overlooked aspect of the Sharks, however, is their ability to draw more penalties than they take. Both the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues were arguably better teams at 5-on-5, but their regular season penalty differentials were atrocious.
The Sharks gained a considerable edge in those series via their special teams, and ended up beating two very strong even strength teams because of their power play.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are essentially a net-zero team when it comes to penalty differential, meaning that the Sharks will likely end up having more power plays than the Penguins.
The matchup to watch out for, then, will be Pittsburgh’s elite penalty kill against San Jose’s equally elite power play. If the Penguins can shut down Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, and the rest of the Sharks’ deadly unit, they’ll be setting themselves up for victory.
The model gives the slight edge to San Jose, simply because of their penalty drawing abilities. It’s hard to shut down an elite power play when they have plenty of opportunities to score, and the more chances the Sharks get with the man advantage, the more often the run of play will swing in their favor.
Using full season statistics, the model gives the Penguins a 58.5 percent chance of winning, and the Sharks a 42.5 percent chance of winning.
However, the current rosters headed into the Stanley Cup Final differ quite a bit from the full season rosters.
Using the post-Sullivan and post-Couture timeframes, the full model actually gives the edge to the Sharks, with San Jose having a 50.3 percent chance of winning the Cup, and the Penguins having a 49.7 percent chance.
Those odds are essentially a coin-flip.
This is going to be one tightly fought series, and hockey fans everywhere should be excited to see these two teams go head-to-head. The best of the best are meeting up in the Stanley Cup Final, and the winners will make history.
Statistics courtesy of war-on-ice.com and corsica.hockey. All stats at 5 on 5 and score adjusted unless otherwise mentioned.