Pens WILL Finish 2nd in Metro by @BrianK_PI - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Pens WILL Finish 2nd in Metro by @BrianK_PI


Entering the All-Star Game weekend the Penguins find themselves in a much better spot in the standings than they were a month earlier. The Pens currently are the 1st Wild Card in the Eastern Conference with 55 points and are only 4 points back of the New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division. While the Washington Capitals are running away with the division, the remaining playoff spots are very much up for grabs. The next 5 teams are separated by only 5 points, and the final 30ish games of the regular season will be a sprint to the finish line. Even with that many teams so closely bunched and despite not having the pole position, it's time for a bold prediction - the Pittsburgh Penguins will finish the regular season as the 2nd place team in the Metropolitan Division.

It's no secret the turnaround the Penguins have had under Mike Sullivan. At their lowest, the Pens were 6th in the Metropolitan, 12th in the East, and on pace for an 87 point season. As things started clicking under Sullivan, Pittsburgh rattled off a 9-3-4 stretch (a 113 point pace) that has them firmly back in the playoff conversation. Had Sullivan started the season in Pittsburgh instead of in Wilkes-Barre, this team likely isn't in a dogfight to make the playoffs rather with a comfortable margin over the final wildcard. A combination of trade acquisitions and AHL call-ups has helped, but the systematic changes made by Sullivan deserve the lion's share of the credit.


What helps the Penguins is that no team in the Metropolitan, outside of Washington, has played at a particularly high level this season. The Rangers are on pace for a 99 point season - the same number of points that Pittsburgh finished with last year as the second and final wild card. Every other team is on pace to finish with fewer points. The team with the consistently best possession among the five contenders, Carolina, currently sits with the fewest points in the most games played in large part due to an atrocious 0.901 SV% in all situations. The Devils have been well below average in possession all season, the Rangers have been below average to average, and the Islanders have been above average to average. Given the night and day turnaround between Johnston and Sullivan, it's not unrealistic to believe the Penguins can continue to be a top-5 possession team through the rest of the season.


Unlike Carolina, the Penguins have posted the best goaltending among the five teams in all situations (0.921 SV%) and even strength (0.935 SV%) and the second best shorthanded (0.895 SV%). However, the Penguins fall drastically behind the other teams as far as shooting percentage is concerned, and unlike possession it's been well below average for both coaches. The league average shooting percentage at even strength this season has been 7.2% - it was 6.3% under Johnston and is 5.6% under Sullivan. It's a surprising number given some of the offensive talent in Pittsburgh, and it's also well under-performing what the Pens have done since their Stanley Cup winning season. It's hard to see their shooting percentage not regressing to the mean over the last part of the season, just like it's hard to see the Rangers continue with their 9.2 SH% and 102.5 PDO at even strength.


But while they're not shooting at a higher percentage at even strength, Mike Sullivan does have the power play clicking at a level they hadn't been at under Johnston. The Pens had been struggling with the man advantage for a full year under Mike Johnston, and before the coaching change they were converting on just 15.6% of their opportunities. After the coaching change, that number has risen to 26.2%, and an effective power play helps offset the low even strength SH% until it has a chance to bounce back. It's part of what made Pittsburgh a difficult team to play against in the past, and if the Pens can continue punishing their opponents mistakes on the PP at a high rate they'll enhance the advantage that their new found possession game has given them.

The Penguins should have a much larger mountain to climb considering they were a below average possession team with an awful powerplay and an inability to convert chances at even strength, but now they find themselves only 5 points back of 2nd place in the division with 34 more games left to play. They've been among the league leaders in possession and power play percentage since Sullivan took over. Outside Washington, a decidedly average division has allowed them an opportunity to be in the position they are now while struggling, and a decidedly average division is what will allow them to flourish now that they're hitting their stride. 11 of the Pens' final 34 games are against these other four teams - they have a great chance to accumulate points at the expense of their division rivals. Look for the Penguins to open the first round of the playoffs in Pittsburgh as they capture 2nd place in the Metropolitan.

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