The Pittsburgh Penguins are the hottest team in the NHL. The franchise clinched its 10th consecutive playoff berth and even without the services of forward Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury this is a team no one wants to see in the playoffs.

The Pens have the highest goal differential when leading (plus-30) showing they can slam the door on an opponent and are a perfect 38-0-0 when leading after two periods. And while some may give General Manager Jim Rutherford the lion’s share of the credit for this team’s current fortunes, they really should be thanking Coach Mike Sullivan, who took over for Mike Johnston in December. He’s made this squad one of the best puck-possession teams in the NHL, and, by extension, the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. 

We’re doing a lot of soft flips behind the defense and letting (Hagelin and Kessel) skate onto pucks,” Nick Bonino told Bill West of the Tribune-Review. “We’re trying to get them the puck coming over the blue line with some speed. If we can avoid dumps and chips, we do, but if not, then it’s got to be a smart dump to get it back.”

Carrying the puck in through the neutral zone is much more effective than dump-and-chase, so it is no surprise the Penguins are able to put shots on net while keeping their opponents from doing the same. But it’s the rate at which they are doing it that makes them one of the strongest Cup contenders in the postseason. After eliminating special teams and adjusting for score effects, the Penguins put the second-most shot attempts in their favor (53.2 percent), trailing only the Los Angeles Kings.

The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, by comparison, are 10th (51.9 percent), indicating Pittsburgh’s success is built on a stronger foundation — a foundation that has historically indicated a deep playoff run. Specifically, seven of the last 10 Stanley Cup champions have ranked in the top three for score-adjusted puck possession. Two of the outliers — the 2011 Boston Bruins and 2006 Carolina Hurricanes — had stellar goaltending while the third, the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, became the seventh best puck possession team after Dan Bylsma took over behind the bench.

It isn’t solely about quantity this season — it’s about quality. Pittsburgh allows the sixth fewest high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes (9.8), something that will help ease the pressure on backup netminders Matt Murray and Jeff Zatkoff. The lack of quality scoring chances by the opposition is also a testament to the defense’s ability to keep momentum in their favor without the services of blue-liner Olli Maatta.

But this Pittsburgh team plays offense, too. Captain Sidney Crosby, has 25 points in 19 games since the beginning of March, vaulting him into third place on the leader board. Forward Patric Hornqvist is third among skaters for even-strength high-danger chances created (109) and has goals in four straight. Along with Chris Kunitz, Crosby and Hornqvist fore the fifth highest-scoring forward trio in the league. Much-maligned Phil Kesseel five goals and 11 points in his past seven games and has seen 52.8 percent of even-strength shot attempts in his team’s favor when on the ice.

The oddsmakers in Vegas are impressed: the Penguins playoff odds give them an implied 21 percent chance at hoisting the Cup, higher than Washington (15 percent) and Dallas (9 percent).