Two games into the Stanley Cup Final, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series and have outscored the Nashville Predators 9-4. On the surface, it appears the defending Stanley Cup champions could make short work of the Predators, but the underlying numbers suggest otherwise.
To many, the Predators appeared to outplay the Penguins in the first two games but struggled in goal and were on the wrong side of the bounces. If so, Nashville already is playing well enough to win the series and could do it with improved goaltending and a little bit of luck.
Game 3 is at Nashville on Saturday (8 p.m. ET: NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).
Looking at the underlying numbers is a good way to either challenge or confirm the eye test. In this case, there are two popular metrics that can help establish which team had an edge in terms of puck possession and/or territorial advantage: SAT and zone start percentage.
[RELATED: Complete Stanley Cup Final coverage]
In terms of SAT, a count of all shot attempts including those blocked or that missed the net, Nashville is leading Pittsburgh 86-57 at 5-on-5. In percentage terms, that means the Predators have been responsible for 60.14 percent of shot attempts at full strength.
These results line up almost exactly with the series zone start percentage of 60.61 percent, calculated as the number of faceoffs that occurred in Pittsburgh's zone (40), relative to Nashville's (26). Putting those pieces of information together, it is reasonable to say the Predators have controlled the play about 60 percent of the time.
The one wrinkle that can sometimes skew SAT and zone start percentages is the way a team can go into a defensive shell when protecting a third-period lead. Given that the Penguins carried a 3-1 lead into the third period of Game 1 and took a 2-1 lead 10 seconds into the third period of Game 2, it's possible that's what happened here. However, when setting third-period results aside, the Predators are leading in shot attempts by an even wider margin, 74-41.
The reason Pittsburgh is outscoring Nashville 7-2 at 5-on-5 despite being outplayed is because the Penguins have scored on 18.8 percent of their shots, compared to 3.9 percent for the Predators. That's a big change from the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the Predators had the edge, 8.8 percent to 8.3 percent.
Video: Take a look at the Preds' penalty problem
Sometimes teams score on a greater percentage of their shots because they are getting in close, setting up more screens, getting more deflections, picking up more rebounds, and taking more shots off the rush, as well as keeping opponents' shots to the outside and keeping traffic away from their own net. According to the available data in NHL game files, that's not what has happened through Games 1 and 2.
If anything, Nashville's shots have been of higher quality than Pittsburgh's. In terms of average shot distance, the Predators' shots have come from an average of 31.7 feet from the net, compared to 34.6 feet for the Penguins. Nashville also has a 3-2 edge in shots tipped or deflected.
Based on a manual count using the NHL Ice Tracker, Nashville has taken 27 shots from within the home-plate area that goes from the posts to the faceoff dots then up to the top of the faceoff circles and across, compared to 12 for Pittsburgh. Add in dangerous shots (rebounds and shots off the rush), and Nashville has a 42-24 edge in scoring chances, according to the estimates at Natural Stat Trick.
Because the Predators have the edge in every possible metric, that means their two losses have come down to a combination of goaltending and puck luck.
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray has stopped 60 of 64 shots in the series for a save percentage of .938 after he stopped 123 of 130 shots in five games (four starts) against the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final. The surprise is Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne has stopped 28 of 36 shots in the Cup Final for a save percentage of .778, the fifth-worst two-game performance of his NHL career.
Video: Preds' game plan after two bad starts from Rinne
Rinne had a .941 save percentage in the first three rounds of the playoffs. NHL playoff save percentage statistics go back to the 1952-53 season; during that time, 12 goalies had a save percentage better than .941 (minimum of 10 games). It was the second-best 16-game stretch of Rinne's NHL career, and a big improvement from his .897 save percentage in the 16-game stretch that ended March 30.
So what happened? The truth is, a save percentage that high is very difficult to maintain over the long term. That's why Rinne's save percentage already was dropping toward his NHL career average of .917 before the Final began. It started at .976 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, then it was .932 against the St. Louis Blues in the second round, and .925 against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final.
Rinne's save percentage was destined to continue dropping, possibly as low as .880, which is his save percentage against the Penguins in eight regular-season games. However, even a save percentage that modest would have meant allowing about half as many goals, which probably would have been enough for this series to be tied 1-1, or possibly even 2-0 in Nashville's favor.
The best explanation is certain psychological or luck-based events that can't be captured statistically have been in play. If they are corrected, then the Predators' current performance level should allow them to get back into this series.