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June 6, 2016
by Bill West


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Shot count, shot quality and scoring

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Only four times this postseason did an opponent finish with more shots on goal than the Penguins. The last incident came in Game 4 against Washington.

What the Penguins’ fairly regular edge in shots represents as it relates to success depends on who you ask. Fans have grown wiser over the last couple seasons about the merits of shot attempts versus shots on goal, but I sense a good many out there still strictly care about what gets to the netminders (and even more so, what gets past them). It never fails to amuse me when a tweet along the lines of “I don’t care about any of that shot stuff as long as we win!” pops up in my notifications.

The outcome of Game 3 — a 3-2 overtime win for San Jose, which tallied 26 shots on goal and allowed 40 — inspired some reaction from fans that I considered surprising. And what Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said after practice on Sunday only added to the intrigue from my vantage point.

“They shoot from everywhere,” DeBoer said of the Penguins. “You do have to look at quality versus quantity. I don’t think it’s as easy as looking at the shot clock and saying you’re getting dominated because they’ve got 40 shots and you’ve got 26. I don’t think the game is that simple. They get pucks to the net. We can probably do a better job of limiting that, getting in some more lanes.

“Historically during the year, we’ve been one of the best shot-blocking teams in the league. But they fire from everywhere, every angle, all over the place, then cause confusion around the net.

“We’ve got to do a better job. But does the fact that they have 30 more shots in the series bother me? Not as much as it bothers you guys.”

I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with DeBoer, depending on the sentence. He’s probably correct about the Penguins settling for low-percentage shots at times. But because the Penguins also get those pucks to the net — a fact he acknowledges — the shot quality can’t be criticized too thoroughly. And research on shot quality in hockey has thus far revealed that, as the quantity of shot attempts grows, the effect of “puck luck,” for lack of a better term, tends to balance everything out. In other words, low-percentage shots from the perimeter eventually go in, and high-percentage looks, which are relatively infrequent to begin with, get denied.

Pens Gm 3 chances final Pens Gm 3 corsi final Pens Gm 3 SOG final

The charts from www.hockeystats.ca show us the Penguins probably didn’t “give away” Game 3 or “deserve to win” it as much as fans (and some media members) insisted. San Jose stepped up its offense in the second period and, with considerable help from Nick Bonino’s four-minute double-minor, passed the Penguins in the third in scoring chances and shot attempts. The Penguins maintained their edge in shots on goal. But to say they carried play is a little misleading.

Matt Murray actually referenced the Sharks’ higher scoring chance total on Sunday when asked if he viewed Game 4 as a “bounce back” opportunity for himself. He owned up to the fact that he gave up one bad goal and another one of debatable quality. But he was also correct to note that San Jose’s lower shots-on-goal total didn’t necessarily reflect how much of a fight the hosts put up at the SAP Center in Game 3.

DeBoer maybe (probably?) believes the Sharks will not continue to finish with negative shot differentials. If San Jose can continue to establish a better down-low cycle game, he might be right. But the numbers in this series still point to encouraging signs for the Penguins.

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June 5, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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On the ice

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Between temperatures hitting the mid-90s with high humidity and an Andrea Bocelli concert in the building the night before, ice conditions were bad for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night.

Anyone with a television could have told you that. The puck was bouncing all over the place all night. Like a football, defenseman Ian Cole said.

But let’s take a closer look at two particular instances where the ice conditions had a really big impact on that game.

— You’ll remember the play that became Joel Ward’s tying goal started when Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang attacked two-on-two up the right wing at the end of a penalty kill. Crosby tried to one-hand a pass over toward Letang, Joe Thornton picked it off and the counter-attack was on.

You can see it at the 30-second mark of this video.

I had a chance to talk to Crosby about the play more in depth after practice today, after he had a chance to watch the video. He said the puck was bouncing as he took a one-handed swipe at it. He figured either Letang would be able to settle the bouncing puck or, more likely, it would just skitter into the far corner. A win-win situation.

What he didn’t anticipate was the bouncing puck suddenly landing flat a split-second before he made contact. The force that would have sent a bouncing puck out of harm’s way instead sent a flat puck sliding about 7 feet, right into a spot where Thornton could grab it.

— You’ll also remember the Phil Kessel breakaway in the first period that Martin Jones stopped. Here’s a link to the video.

First off, it’s a minor miracle that Kessel was able to settle the bouncing puck onto his blade to carry it into the zone. It surely made it more difficult for Kessel to get off the kind of shot he wanted to take.

But the effect of the poor ice goes beyond that. Look at how aggressively Jones comes out of his net to challenge Kessel. There’s no way he tries that under normal conditions. Under normal conditions, Kessel fakes a shot and Jones is dead in the water.

This is no way suggests the Penguins lost because of poor ice conditions. The bounces that went San Jose’s way could have easily gone their way too. It’s just a closer look into a story that has become a bigger part of the Stanley Cup Final than you’d ideally want it to.

Bye for now,

jb

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June 5, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Game 3 San Jose postgame

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I think it’s safe to say one play made the difference in tonight’s 3-2 Sharks victory in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.

At 4:48 of the third period, Nick Bonino received a double minor for high-sticking Joe Thornton. The Penguins held a dangerous Sharks power play at bay for about 3 minutes and 45 seconds when the critical moment came.

Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang skated a puck up the right wing and attacked Thornton and Brent Burns two-on-two rather than simply dumping a puck behind the net. It didn’t work out, the Sharks countered quickly and Joel Ward slapped a shot past Matt Murray to tie the score 2-2.

Crosby explained his decision after the game. He said there was a possibility Bonino was about to leave the box and join the rush, which would have created a three-on-two. You can see where he’s coming from. A goal there kills the Sharks dead.

But instead, the Sharks won in overtime and have a chance to tie the series Monday night.

“I guess you could go back and maybe get it deep. If I had known there was two seconds left, maybe I try to curl it. It’s always easy after, but yeah, I think, looking back, it would have been a better play at this point,” Crosby said.

This discussion would be moot, of course, if Murray makes the stop. He said the puck dropped unexpectedly on him, but he also said it’s a stop he has to make. And he’s right.

Crosby circled the wagons around his 22-year-old goalie after the game.

“He was solid,” Crosby said. “He made some big saves for us. They were pressing there late and he made some saves. Overtime, he made some saves. Both goalies did. (Murray) was great. He gave us a chance after they got that goal and they got some momentum. He was really solid for us.”

Crosby also took the blame personally for the Penguins not getting anything going on their one power-play attempt in the first period. That’s unusual, not because Crosby doesn’t take blame, but because he almost always views mistakes — as well as successes — as a team effort.

“It’s probably a bit of lack of execution on the entry,” Crosby said. “Tonight, we only had the one and I made a couple of bad passes there that kind of killed momentum, especially early. Once we get in there, usually we’re able to make some plays. Tonight, I’ve got to make a couple better plays.”

Some other notes from tonight from Crosby’s perspective:

On the game overall: “We had some chances. I think both teams carried the play for different times. I thought we did a good job even with the lead. We still went after them and generated some chances. We didn’t sit back. If anything, we can take that away.”

On the Penguins blocking an ungodly number of shots (38): “I think when you look at their defensemen, they get any puck back to the point, they’re just letting it go. Sometimes you’re forced to have to block more because of that. I think all of our forwards and defensemen are willing to block them if they need to. Obviously, if you’re able to block less and play down in their end, that’s beneficial, but sometimes you gotta defend a little bit.”

On the poor ice conditions: “Both teams are using the same ice. That’s to be expected this time of year in San Jose.”

On the 4-foot zone around the boards: “I think we’ve got better. I think we’ve got to execute better, win some more of those battles. They were winning some of the wall battles that we are really consistently are strong in. Tonight, we were just OK. We gave ourselves a chance to win, but usually that’s an area where we really take a lot of pride in being good there.”

Bye for now,

jb

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June 5, 2016
by Bill West


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SCF Game 3 GIF-cap

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San Jose cut into the Penguins’ series lead in the Stanley Cup Final with a 3-2 overtime win in Game 3 on Saturday night at the SAP Center.

Feel free to let the following GIFs ignite your rage. Or maybe they’ll help you feel better about the Penguins’ performance. Guess it depends if you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person.

Ugly allowance: The Joel Ward goal, which snuck between Matt Murray’s arm and leg, left a lot of Penguins fans shaking their fists. Even Mario Lemieux got in on the action.

Lost in the moment: San Jose’s first goal also represented a relatively low moment for Murray, who apparently had no idea a shot was coming.

Tough as nails: There’s a noticeable lack of GIFs from the game tonight, so this will have to be the closing image.

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June 4, 2016
by Bill West


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Getting real about Game 3

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Neither San Jose coach Pete DeBoer nor the most vocal of his players considered the Sharks’ performances in Game 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final as particularly poor. They referred to what they viewed as costly but infrequent mistakes as difference-makers. They made every effort to dispel any speculation about panic.

“I think we’ll hold off on the funeral,” DeBoer said minutes after the end of Game 2.

He continued at another point: “You have two teams that are playing really tight hockey. One mistake changes the game. You’re not going to play mistake-free.  … A little puck luck, we win (Game 2). We didn’t. We had Nashville up 2-0, they came back and pushed us to seven. They held serve at home, we got to do the same thing.”

For the Sharks, from DeBoer on down, to insist all is relatively well at this stage is fine. That’s what teams need to say. But the Sharks can’t deny that what they experienced in two games against the Penguins differed from what they encountered during most of their other series this postseason.

Take a look at the Sharks’ even-strength shot rate metrics from the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final and how they compare to their numbers from the previous three series combined:
Sharks in SCF

San Jose got this far largely because it limited the opposition’s shots on goal and scoring chances. They have not done that against the Penguins.

DeBoer briefly addressed one theory as to why.

“I think our (puck) support, not just coming out of our own zone, but all over the ice, is always important,” he said after Friday’s practice. “(It’s) a little bit off.”

“Obviously, you have to give them some credit. Their speed pushes you into positions where if you’re off by a couple feet, you’re in trouble. … We’ve gotten used to that over the first two games. I think we’ll be much better.”

Nothing about the Penguins’ performances in Game 1 and 2 demanded much nitpicking. Coach Mike Sullivan said his skaters needed to create a little more traffic at the net front. But he even offered that half-heartedly.

Put simply, Sullivan likes what he has seen. And he should, judging by the numbers. Save and shot percentages might vary, but he knows he can trust the differentials in attempts and other metrics.

Pens playoff comp

Game 3 might change all of the rates, of course. Such is the struggle with small sample sizes. But two games in the Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins look a lot more like themselves than the Sharks.

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June 2, 2016
by Bill West


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Stanley Cup Final Game 2 GIF-cap

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Coach Mike Sullivan did not use the word “resilient” in his post-game press conference after the Penguins beat San Jose, 2-1, in overtime to take a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final. This development represented perhaps the biggest surprise on a night when the Penguins dictated play and, in the words of Carl Hagelin, “deserved more than one goal” in regulation.

Crosby the quarterback: This clip is longer than a GIF, but it’s too enlightening to pass up. Sidney Crosby literally goes to every guy on the ice before the draw that set up the game-winner.

‘HBK’ line’s Sweet Chin Music: Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel can’t kick people in the face like Shawn Michaels, so they do the most heart-breaking thing that’s allowed within the limits of hockey rules: Antagonize defensemen into turnovers the immediately lead to scoring chances.

“(Bonino) showed a lot poise making that play over to Phil, and an easy tap-in for Phil, but good stuff that he was there,” Hagelin said of Kessel’s goal.

Asked whether Kessel stole a tally from Bonino, Hagelin said: “It’s one of those things that the puck is about to go in, but it’s slow, so if he doesn’t put it in, who knows, someone might dive to get it out. So he did the right thing.”

Stop man-handling Sheary: If the rookie is going to join Bryan Rust as a legend among the Penguins, he probably should work on his celebrations. Rust had the pistol and holster move. Sheary just let Letang give him the proud older brother treatment.

The Jumbo Joe narrative: Joe Thornton entered the Stanley Cup Final with one of the most compelling individual storylines. Through two games, he’s still waiting for a highlight. In the meantime, there’s this…

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June 1, 2016
by Bill West


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SCF Game 2 pregame thoughts

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Take a guess at which forward line the Penguins entrusted most with even-strength minutes against San Jose’s top trio of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl in Game 1.

The logical conclusion is Sidney Crosby and company. After all, Crosby’s line handled the toughest matchups fairly often during the regular season and in the playoffs most notably went head-to-head with Washington’s star-powered top line for much of the second-round series.

A fine second guess would be the defense-oriented checking line of Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr and Tom Kuhnhackl. And that’s certainly closer to the correct answer.

It actually fell on the shoulders of Nick Bonino, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin to square off against the Thornton-led trio for the largest chunk of time. On the back end, top pair Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin predictably drew the Thornton line assignment, but let’s focus on how HBK fared against the Joe Bros.

Pens h2h Game 1Hopefully most readers of this blog are familiar with War-on-Ice.com’s head-to-head game charts by now, but just to be sure, I’ll remind everyone that the general gist is big blue squares are good for the Penguins because they represent favorable head-to-head puck possession, big red squares reflect poor puck possession, and gray squares indicate 50-50 possession.

Bonino, Hagelin and Kessel accumulated just a bit more ice time against Thornton, Pavelski and Hertl than Cullen’s line. (I checked). And the results of the two lines clearly were stark: Bonino’s line won the possession battle against Thornton’s line, while Cullen’s line struggled. Part of this can probably be attributed to Cullen’s line handling defensive-zone draws. But the Bonino line performance still sticks out as impressive, if only because the HBK group often is viewed as the beneficiary of matchups against opponents’ bottom-six forwards and Joe Thornton is not a pushover as a defensive center in the least.

Here’s what Sullivan said about his logic on the Game 1 matchups after Wednesday’s morning skate:

“We have a comfort level that we can play any of our lines against any opponent’s lines. We think the strength of our team throughout the course of the playoffs has been the balance with the forward group that we have. We think we have guys on each line that have an awareness at both ends of the rink. We really like that balance. I think it makes us more difficult to place against. We chose to use Bones a fair amount against Pavelski and Thornton’s line because we think (the HBK line) has awareness at both ends of the rink. When you have offensive people that play against other team’s offensive people, the benefit of that is when they have the puck, they force those guys to have to play defense. They’re threats to score. Bones and Haggy are penalty killers, and they have very good defensive strengths or defensive skill sets. They have great awareness. They have good sticks. Bones is very good down low in the D zone. There’s a lot that we like about that line, but for me, one of the best things is if they do play against another team’s top line is they have that offensive threat, where they’re going to have to force our opponents’ offensive players to have to defend.”

To summarize: Sullivan basically believed — correctly, it turned out — that HBK’s offensive reputation would influence how the Thornton line went about its business.

The decision to match HBK against Thornton’s line proved interesting in another way: It allowed Sullivan to overwhelm San Jose’s third line — Chris Tierney, Melker Karlsson and Joel Ward — with Crosby. The biggest, bluest squares on that War-on-Ice head-to-head chart are at the intersections of the Crosby and Tierney lines. (Schultz and Cole helped the Crosby line abuse Tierney’s trio.)

This has been the theme throughout the playoffs: Opponents get to pick their poison against the Penguins and hope for the best. There’s no telling if Sullivan will stick with these matchups for Game 2 and beyond. But the onus now is on the Sharks to consider whether they need to handle deployment differently.

One other tidbit to share in the hours ahead of the opening puck drop: @TempoFreeHockey put together some insightful analysis of how individual Penguins contributed to the team’s puck possession efforts. Find the full post here. The chart I often like to study closest is the one detailing turnovers, as puck management is one of the first subjects Sullivan discusses after almost any game.

Pens individual poss turnoversThe turnover tracking numbers confirm what much of the other data indicated about Justin Schultz’s performance: It was excellent.

I highly advise checking out all of the data collected, as there’s not one chart that gives an all-encompassing view of a player’s performance as it relates to possession.

 

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May 31, 2016
by Bill West


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SCF Game 1 GIF-cap

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Selfless coworker Jonathan Bombulie was nice enough to transcribe a bunch of quotes for me last night, so the GIF recap of the Penguins’ 3-2 win over San Jose in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final will simply pair images with some of the best remarks from the victors.

Coach Mike Sullivan on Sidney Crosby: “You could see his hunger to win. He’s inspiring. I thought he was a force out there all night. He’s so strong on the puck. His speed through the neutral zone. He’s a threat. Every time he jumps over the boards, we feel he’s a threat to score or a threat to put pressure on our opponent’s defense. You can see he has that twinkle in his eye, I think. He knows we’ve played extremely hard to get to this point. When he plays this way, I think he inspires the whole group.”

And this one…

Sullivan on the Patrick Marleau head shot that knocked Bryan Rust out of the game in the third period: “He’s day to day with an upper-body injury. It’s a blind-side hit to the head. He gets a penalty. I’m sure the league will look at it.” On Tuesday, Sullivan did not have an update on Rust’s status. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety did not discipline Marleau for the hit.

Sullivan on Nick Bonino, who scored the game-winner with 2:33 left: “He’s a real calm, cool and collected guy. I don’t think his heart rate gets too high. He just goes about his job. He’s great with his linemates. He’s grest with our young players. He’s a reassuring presence, both in the locker room and on the bench.”

Chris Kunitz on Bonino as a guy who scores big goals: “Bones may not be known for a goal scorer, but he’s got a heavy stick. He can find pucks. He’s really slippery. He does all the things right and found himself in the right position and capitalized on it.”

 Matt Murray on San Jose’s second goal, which Marleau scored on a wraparound after collecting a rebound from a Brent Burns shot: “We knew they were good at getting pucks to the net from the point and shooting off the pass from the point and getting sticks on the puck. That’s how they got their second goal. It was just a point shot with a rebound. Nothing crazy. Nothing we didn’t expect.”

Phil Kessel’s observation of the day: “It was a tight game. Obviously they’re a good team. It was a battle out there and we found a way.”

 

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May 31, 2016
by Bill West


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Stanley Cup Game 1 Data Dump

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Here’s the first installment of what I hope/plan to do for every game in the Stanley Cup Final. I won’t waste your time with many words. Just Fancy Stat charts and brief thoughts on said charts, for people who like that sort of thing.

Penguins are the alpha predators in 5v5: When a team leads, 2-0, after the first period, it tends to complicate how to assess the rest of the game. The Sharks certainly answered the Penguins’ strong first period with an impressive second. But the score-adjusted 5v5 numbers came out decidedly in favor of the Penguins. Only the Sharks’ shot attempts ended up close, but as the scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances indicate, they rarely got the puck into the slot and/or near the front of the net. (Chart from War-on-Ice).

Pens Sharks WO1 event data

Marching up Data Mountain: The Sharks’ power play struck tonight, and it likely will continue to strike fear into the hearts of the Penguins fans for the rest of the series (as it should). But three power plays for San Jose only did so much to improve its chances of matching the outpouring of offense delivered by the Penguins in the first and third periods. Below I’ve included  all-situations score-adjusted shot attempts and scoring chances from www.hockeystats.ca and an all-situations xG graphic from www.corsica.hockey.

Pens Sharks Gm 1 final Corsi Pens Sharks Gm 1 final chancesCorsica xG Game 1

Depth charge: One Penguins-related topic discussed and pondered throughout the playoffs has been forward depth. Can any team answer the Penguins’ four-line approach? San Jose’s first attempt did not go so well. The Sharks’ stars performed well in 5v5 play. But their bottom-six forwards and third defensive pair brought very little to the table. The Penguins, meanwhile, thrived with Nick Bonino and Sidney Crosby’s lines driving possession up front and a surprisingly productive Justin Schultz chipping in on the blue line. (Corsi differential chart from www.hockeystats.ca and matchup chart from War-on-Ice.com).

Pens Gm 1 poss final Pens Sharks Gm 1 h2h

 

 

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May 30, 2016
by Bill West


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Stanley Cup predictions and projections

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There are a lot of smart people with opinions about the Stanley Cup Final and how it might play out. Some rely purely on their eyes and instincts, and maybe even their NHL playing experience. Others are inclined to trust not only what they witness and remember, but also that which they miss and need to revisit with help from both traditional and advanced statistics (a fancy word for a record of events in a hockey game)

In the age of abundant information, it’s always interesting to see the difference, if any, between those who make predictions or projections based on anecdotal evidence or data-driven analysis or some blend of the two.

Vegas, or at least sports book Bovada.com, lists the Penguins as a favorite at 4/5, while the Sharks’ odds are 21/20. The sports book also listed San Jose’s Joe Pavelski at the Conn Smythe frontrunner at 5/2, followed by Phil Kessel at 11/2. Sidney Crosby (6/1) and Matt Murray (6/1) are the next closest candidates among the Penguins.

Many from the NHL.com editorial staff chimed in with their predictions in a story found here: https://www.nhl.com/news/stanley-cup-final-expert-picks/c-280834534?tid=280204614.

To see 17 of 21 chose the Sharks shocked me a bit. But maybe I’m a little too close to the topic to see the big picture. So I decided to see what a swath of online writers with number-driven projection models concluded about the Cup’s potential outcome. Shoutout to Twitter’s @omgitsdomi, who has been tracking several of the web’s most prominent data wizards and their playoff projections.

The outcome percentages are in the right two columns. The left-most column of numbers indicates who has been most accurate with their projection model to this point in the playoffs.

Pretty interesting, eh? While media types are largely siding with San Jose, Twitter’s most hockey-crazed proponents of math-driven analysis have models that prefer the Penguins at the start of the series.

As for me? Well, I’d think most readers of my coverage would know how I draw conclusions by now. So feel free to draw your conclusions from that.

 

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