Craig Anderson and Matt Murray. Image by: Getty Images
There are only two teams left standing after a wild first three rounds, and our probabilities model sees one as a significant favorite.
The wild ride that has been the 2017 playoffs is almost over, and what remains is a pretty captivating Stanley Cup final matchup. The Pittsburgh Penguins look to defend their title – the first team with that right since 2009 – against the Nashville Predators, the last team to qualify for this year’s playoffs.
It’s been a crazy and unpredictable playoffs and this match-up seems like proof of it. The Predators were, of course, the 16th seed while the Penguins seemed doomed after losing defenseman Kris Letang. Going into the playoffs, this matchup wasn’t too wacky an idea according to the model we’ve been using here based on Game Score.
The Predators rated as the second-best team in the West despite the 16th seed tag, though they were very slight underdogs to the third best team (Chicago) in Round 1 thanks to home ice and had lower odds than the fourth best team (Anaheim) due to the difficulty of the Central bracket. Regardless, that’s a much better chance than many were giving them. They were one of the best Cup value bets to start the playoffs at 28-1. We had them closer to 20-1.
Pittsburgh also rated as the second best team in the East despite losing Letang, and with the way they played in Round 2 they arguably should have lost to the best. That was the Penguins' biggest hurdle and they managed to find a way over it, which speaks volumes about the team – one many wrote off as a disappointing waste of a potential dynasty. This is now the fourth Cup final in the Crosby/Malkin era.
But while the end result looks good with the second best team in each conference meeting in the final, the misses this year can’t be ignored. It’s a testament to the wild and chaotic nature of the sport and the tournament that crowns its champion. A lot of it was thanks to an especially unpredictable first round with many upsets. This model “called” three of eight there, but it’s been on the upswing since and is now a decent 8-6 with one series to go. On average, a model would expect to go around 10-5 or 11-4 based on historic accuracy, so this year has in fact been much less predictable than usual.
Among other models though, we’re doing pretty good. Through the first three rounds, its log loss (a way to measure prediction accuracy) is 0.688, which is third best out of the 20 models I’ve tracked. Not bad, though it pales in comparison to the pundits this year who have been doing a much better job. Last year was great for the nerds, bad for the experts. This year has been the exact opposite.
On to the Cup final though and this model believes there’s a very good chance the Penguins will repeat as Stanley Cup champions, the first team to do so since the 1998 Red Wings.
A breakdown of how the model works can be found here.
1. There’s a few assumptions to be made here and it has everything to do with injuries. Patric Hornqvist didn’t dress for Game 7 and he’s a big part of the Penguins offense, especially on the power play as a net front presence. You have to figure he’ll be at his best against his former team, too. He took warm-ups Thursday night, so my guess is he should be ready for Game 1. If he isn’t the Penguins drop, and what they drop to depends on how long he’s out for. If it’s the entire series (doubtful) they’d fall to 56 percent.
For the Predators, they’ve been without Mike Fisher for the past two games and while he’s been absent from the scoresheet all playoffs, he’s someone they desperately need especially with Ryan Johansen out. Craig Smith isn’t a center, but his loss is arguably just as big as he’s one of Nashville’s better forwards. It seems like both players will be ready in time for Game 1. If they’re both not, the Predators could fall to as low as 36 percent. That’s not exactly close. Without them, their forward group is really depleted.
2. One other question mark is Cody McLeod. He didn’t see the ice against a very skilled Chicago team, but didn’t miss a game against a heavier St. Louis and Anaheim team. Pittsburgh is much closer to the former so I wonder if Peter Laviolette takes him out of the lineup for the final round. He’s a fourth line guy and that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but he’s one of Nashville’s biggest drags and taking him out is actually a pretty big boost for them. Theoretically, of course.
What’s always important to remember is that this is only a projection system of how they should play on average. In a short series that’s not how things always play out. McLeod is a great example because his insertion into the lineup over anyone, especially deadline acquisition PA Parenteau, looked indefensible by the numbers. In actuality it was a very shrewd decision as McLeod has saved his best hockey for the playoffs and actually looks like a decent fourth liner, while Parenteau has been Nashville’s worst player pretty much anytime he’s suited up.
These probabilities are about what’s likely to happen, but there’s a lot of room for grey there in a world where anything can happen. Most of the time, Parenteau is going to help a team a lot more than McLeod would. Sometimes he won’t though, and Laviolette looks like a genius for making the right call.
3. This should be one of the most interesting series we’ve seen in a long time purely because of the positional match-ups. Mainly, these are the two least balanced teams among the sixteen playoff teams and their strength lies in different positions. Pittsburgh has the league’s best forward group, but their defense is a bit suspect. Nashville has the league’s best defense group, but their forwards are a bit suspect, especially with their injuries. It’s perfect harmony and I’m excited to see how it unfolds on the ice.
It’ll be the marquee showdown between offense and defense, but one series won’t prove which position is more important by any means. Keep that in mind after the Cup is rewarded because there’ll be a lot of people telling you otherwise. One important question that can be asked after though is about balance. Does it matter as much as we think it does if two teams that are extremely strong at a single position are meeting each other in the final round? (I don’t have an answer, but I do think it’s interesting to think about).
The strengths are what people will be talking about, but this series might be won by the suspect parts of each team. If Pittsburgh wins, it’ll be because their shoddy D-corps managed to hold the fort. If Nashville wins, it’ll be because their run-down forward corps managed to find some goals.
Both groups are below average right now, but injuries are what pushed them there and that’s what really sucks. That Pittsburgh D-corps looks just fine with Letang anchoring it, and while it didn’t matter whether he was here or not, his presence would’ve likely made things a lot easier. And Nashville’s forwards look a lot more formidable with their top centre Johansen matching up against one of Pittsburgh’s generational stars. Now that would’ve been a helluva final.
How much is each guy worth? Letang would’ve bumped up Pittsburgh’s chances by seven percent and made them big time favorites, while Johansen brings the Predators up five percent. The Johansen injury is worse because it just happened two games ago and would’ve made this a much closer series – we already knew Letang wasn’t going to play.
4. Nashville’s a pretty big dog and it’s entirely because of their forwards, but maybe this should be closer. Two guys that stick out right now are Colton Sissons and Pontus Aberg, neither of whom are players my model is particularly fond of. Sissons has 20 points in 109 career NHL games so it’s no wonder, but a lot of that is being stuck with lower quality teammates. Apparently he’ll score hat tricks if you pair him with a guy like Filip Forsberg, but even before that move he was legitimately playing much better than expected in the playoffs.
Same goes for Aberg, though his issue is also sample size. He’s only got 15 games to his name and he looks like a replacement level player in those games. That hasn’t been the case these playoffs and it’s not even surprising when you look at his AHL numbers. He might be another diamond in the rough for Nashville.
Give some young guys a chance to thrive and they will. Who knew? Well, my model didn’t and it’s one reason to be a bit more optimistic about Nashville. The Preds' forward group might surprise if some unheralded players can keep this up.
5. Whether Pekka Rinne can keep it up is the biggest x-factor right now. He’s the team’s leading Conn Smythe candidate (though I think Forsberg is close) and his transformation into a human brick wall is the biggest reason Nashville is going to its first ever Cup final. But he’s been slowly reverting back to form. He’s got a .941 save percentage for the playoffs, but it’s been dropping every round:
vs. Chicago: 0.976
vs. St. Louis: 0.932
vs. Anaheim: 0.925
His save percentage during the season was .918, and his career average is .917, so he’s way above his usual performance. His career high is .930 back in 2010-11 and that’s the only season he’s posted a save percentage higher than his lowest for any round this playoffs. It’s a remarkable run for a goalie who many, including me, were writing off before the season started, but does he have seven more game of magic left in him?
On the other side, Matt Murray is quickly becoming one of the best goalies in the league and that’ll make for a tough duel for Rinne. I’m happy for Marc-Andre Fleury and what he did to get the Penguins here, but if Murray is healthy you have to go back to him because he’s the better option. It had to be done at the right time though and Pittsburgh nailed that.