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Pens’ Best and Worst Playoff Matchups: Matt-alytics

The home stretch will take on a playoff feel, with seven of their last 15 against potential postseason opponents.



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After banking back-to-back overtime wins on home ice, the Penguins have officially moved into the final month of the regular season. Barring a shocking nosedive, the two-time defending champs will return to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

What’s more, out of their final 15 games, the Penguins have but one matchup remaining against a Western Conference foe: Sunday night’s home date with the Stars.

Oddly, there are three matchups remaining with the Canadiens, but for the most part the home stretch will take on a playoff-preview feel, with seven of their last 15 against potential postseason opponents. That string starts Wednesday night when the Penguins face the Flyers for the third time this season, in Philadelphia on national television.

Narrowing It Down

According to Sports Club Stats, the Pens’ most likely first-round foe is Philly, at 42 percent probability. Most likely, that potential battle of Pennsylvania will take place in the context of the 2-3 matchup in the Metropolitan Division.

But there’s still a chance the Penguins’ first round features the Capitals (18 percent), Panthers (15), Devils (13) or Blue Jackets (6). Sports Club Stats also projects a 2 percent chance each for Penguins-Lightning or Penguins-Hurricanes, but we’ll put those aside for now, if only for brevity’s sake.

Honing in on the five most likely first-round opponents, we have seen the Penguins play each one of them at least two times this season, so we have a half-decent sample size to draw from when projecting matchups.

I decided to tackle this problem using a pair of even-strength metrics: Shot-attempt differential and high-danger scoring chances. That way, we can see who’s controlled territory in previous games and who’s had the best of it in the most hotly-contested pieces of ice. I also used score-adjusted metrics, since score effects can have outsized effects in the smallish samples we’re examining here. (For more unsightly mathematical details on adjusting for score, click here.)

Who You Got?

Using Natural Stat Trick‘s accounting, the Penguins have had the best success in the shot share category against the Panthers, at 54.5 percent in three games, although they’ve done almost exactly as well in their two games against the Flyers, at 54.4 percent.

For reference, the Penguins’ score-adjusted shot share on the season is 51.7 percent. They’ve done better than that baseline against the Blue Jackets (52.2 percent) and Capitals (51.8), although it’s close.

There’s really only one possible Metro opponent that has dictated terms to the champs: New Jersey. The Penguins have created just 42.1 percent of the five-on-five attempts against the revamped Devils, but the scoring chance share is just as troubling at 38.0 percent. Both numbers are the Penguins’ worst against the entire East playoff field, although they have two more regular-season dates with the Devils yet to come.

Speaking of scoring chances, the Penguins have done the best against Washington (59.7 percent), but they’ve had solid results against Columbus (58.3), Florida (56.7) and Philadelphia (56.5).

Down the Road

If the goal of the upcoming playoff run is a serious threat at a three-peat, though, this study would be incomplete without a glance at the non-Panthers portion of the Atlantic Division. And that’s where these numbers turn ugly.

Among the top three Atlantic teams, only against the Maple Leafs have the Penguins controlled the score-adjusted shot share this season, at 52.9 percent. Against the Bruins (42.6 percent) and Lightning (44.0), the Penguins have been reduced to a counterattacking outfit. The results have followed along those lines, as the Penguins have collected just two wins (one in overtime) in six combined meetings vs. the Atlantic’s top two.

Interestingly, the Penguins have actually had the edge against Boston in scoring chance ratio (51.0 percent), but that metric isn’t very promising against Tampa Bay (46.1) and especially not Toronto (34.7).

Finally, if the Hurricanes make the playoffs and somehow set up a rematch of the 2009 East final — whether in the first, second or third rounds — the Penguins and Carolina have essentially waged a dead heat in shot attempts this season … but the ‘Canes have owned roughly 57 percent of the high-danger chances.

Show and Tell

Here’s the full data set, sorted by shot-attempt share:

Looking forward to updating with future games and seeing if anything changes!

Which team would you prefer to see in the playoffs, first round or otherwise?

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter from 2016-18, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He contributes commentary and analysis here in various forms.

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4 years ago

I’ve never been a stat guy. I’ve always relied upon the eye test during a competition. However, I do enjoy these articles. My eyes tell me the Pens do not match up well with Boston and NJ. I don’t believe the Pens with their current team defensive play can beat either team in the playoffs. Simmonds of Philly will be a tough match as I don’t know which D-man can consistently battle him in front of the net. But, I think the Pens would still beat Philly in the playoffs and the Caps too. So, I’m hoping for Pens vs… Read more »

Mike Adams
Mike Adams
4 years ago

The problem with this analysis is small sample sizes. It really gets polluted by when they played certain teams. They played Tampa three times very early, when the Pens were at their worst. Same with Florida, but in the other direction. Florida is playing much better now than earlier, and I would fear them. Where the stats also meet the eye test is with the team I fear them playing–New Jersey. They have dominated the Pens twice without Cory Schneider in net. Based purely on that eye test and not the numbers, here’s my preferred order of the five likeliest… Read more »

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