If the Pittsburgh Penguins defeat the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final, they will become the first team to win the Cup in back-to-back seasons since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
Any comparison to those Red Wings is flattering; they swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1997 Final and the Washington Capitals in the 1998 Final. The roster included eight members of the Hockey Hall of Fame: forwards Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Igor Larionov and Sergei Fedorov, defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom, Larry Murphy and Slava Fetisov, and coach Scotty Bowman.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each seem to be a safe bet to one day be enshrined, but no other player on the Penguins roster appears likely to get the call from the Hall at this point.
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How do today's Penguins compare in other regards? According to the numbers, they qualify as the Red Wings' equal offensively and in goal, but their defensive play may be a stride behind.
Statistically, there are some challenges to overcome when comparing teams from one era to another. There were 26 teams in 1997-98, and the Predators weren't one of them. It was before the two-referee system, points for overtime losses, the shootout, and the salary cap were introduced. The center line still counted for two-line passes, and goalies were allowed to play the puck anywhere behind the net.
In most cases, the differences between the eras tended to cancel each other out in the final numbers. For example, there were fewer shots per game in 1997-98, but save percentages were also lower, resulting in roughly the same number of goals per game. Similarly, there were more power-play opportunities per game, but percentages were also slightly lower, resulting in roughly the same number of power-play goals.
Even with these differences in mind, it remains fair to compare these Penguins to those Red Wings.
In terms of record, the Penguins are 28-15 in the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, meaning they already have lost more games than the Red Wings, who were 32-10 in the 1997 and 1998 playoffs.
The Penguins have the edge in the regular season, with a 98-47-19 record in 2015-16 and 2016-17 combined, which ranks second to the Capitals (111-37-16). That results in 215 points, which is 18 more than the Red Wings, who had a record of 82-49 with 33 ties in 1996-97 and 1997-98 combined, which ranked fifth in that span.
In terms of playoff scoring, the Penguins have been led by Malkin, who has 42 points (13 goals, 29 assists) in 42 games over the past two seasons. He is followed by Phil Kessel with 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) in 43 games, and Crosby with 39 points (13 goals, 26 assists) in 42 games.
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That's right on pace with the Red Wings, who were led by Fedorov with 40 points (18 goals, 22 assists) in 42 games and Yzerman with 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists) in 42 games.
As a team, Pittsburgh's averages of 3.05 goals per game and 32.8 shots per game is not far behind Detroit's averages of 3.17 and 34.2. The roles were reversed in the regular season, with Pittsburgh having the edge with 3.16 goals per game and 33.3 shots per game, compared to 3.07 and 32.1 for Detroit. Let's call that a wash.
Defensively, it's hard to compete with the Red Wings, who allowed 2.07 goals per game and 26.3 shots per game over the 1997 and 1998 playoffs. The Penguins have allowed 2.30 goals per game and 30.1 shots per game over the 2016 and 2017 playoffs.
The gap isn't in goal, where Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury have been as effective for the Penguins as Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood were for the Red Wings. Murray has a .928 save percentage in 26 playoff games over the past two seasons, and Fleury's is .921 in 17 games. That's almost an exact match with Vernon and Osgood, who had save percentages of .927 in 20 games and .918 in 24 games for the Red Wings, respectively.
In terms of goals allowed, the difference between the Red Wings and Penguins is on defense, where the Penguins simply can't compete with a Detroit roster that featured Lidstrom, Fetisov and Murphy.
The Red Wings also had a penalty-killing percentage of 86.5, compared to 85.2 for Pittsburgh. In the regular season, the gap was even wider (86.6-82.1).
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In contrast, the power play is one area where these Penguins best the Red Wings. Led with a combined 59 points from Malkin, Kessel and Crosby, the Penguins have a power-play percentage of 24.1 over the past two playoffs, compared to 15.0 for the Red Wings.
However, these comparisons may be premature. The Penguins still have one more critical test to pass before they can be compared to the Red Wings' 1997 and 1998 Cup teams: winning four games against the Predators.
Game 1 is at Pittsburgh on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).