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Penguins’ formula for Stanley Cup success won’t be easy to copy

Phil Kessel of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the San Jose Sharks in six games to win the Stanley Cup, the fourth championship in franchise history. Rookie goaltender Matt Murray was sensational, stopping 127 of his 138 shots faced en route to becoming the second-youngest netminder since 1927 to be the winning goalie of record for a title-clinching game. Pittsburgh’s captain, Sidney Crosby joined the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews as the only two forwards in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy without scoring a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals that year. (Yes, Phil Kessel deserved it more). The penalty kill held the Sharks’ vaunted power play to just one power-play goal in 12 opportunities, scored by Tomas Hertl in Game 1.

Biggest threat to Stanley Cup champion Penguins: A team that doesn’t yet exist

But more than anything else, the Penguins’ superior ability to tilt the ice in their favor during the regular season made them a serious contender for the Stanley Cup as soon as the playoffs started. And while the series against Washington required some luck to move in to the Eastern Conference finals, Pittsburgh fully leveraged its speed and ability in the neutral zone to earn the Cup.

The correlation between shot attempts and actual puck possession is not absolute, but knowing which squad takes more shot attempts after eliminating special teams and normalizing for how teams play with a lead — teams tend to protect leads by going into a defensive shell, thus generating fewer shot attempts — indicates which teams are truly championship-caliber. In the finals, Pittsburgh enjoyed a 352-to-267 shot attempt advantage over San Jose after adjusting for score effects.

Going back to the 2005-06 season, nine of the past 11 eventual Cup winners put at least 50 percent of even-strength shot attempts in their favor during the regular season after adjusting for score effects. The two outliers, the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes (48.2 percent) and the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins (48.4 percent), were close. In addition to those two, only one other team in the past 11 seasons has reached the Stanley Cup finals with a score-adjusted Corsi percentage of less than 50 percent: the 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins (45.7 percent).

The 2006 Hurricanes and 2009 Penguins are also the only two teams to win the Stanley Cup after ranking outside of the top 10 for score-adjusted Corsi percentage. The past four champions were all in the top five.

There are many elements of Pittsburgh’s championship run that other teams will emulate — cheap goaltending, mobile defensemen, depth at forward — but establishing strong puck possession might be the most difficult. Over the past 11 seasons, just four teams (2010 Sharks, 2008 Blackhawks, 2007 Capitals, and 2015 Ducks) have made the jump from outside the top 10 in score-adjusted Corsi percentage to the top three in one season. In other words, it takes more than one season to overhaul a roster enough to become competitive for a championship title.

That’s potentially bad news for the Washington Capitals, who are tied with the Penguins at 8-to-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup in 2017. They put 52 percent of shots in their favor this past season, the 10th most in the NHL, and won’t turn over a large portion of their roster. We might already know what we are going to get with the Capitals next season, then, making a large step forward in puck possession unlikely. Same for the current 2017 favorite Chicago Blackhawks (6-to-1 odds), who ranked 13th in score-adjusted Corsi percentage this past season.

The Penguins, on the other hand, could improve next year, now that Coach Mike Sullivan will have the chance to guide the team from the very beginning of training camp, making them decent value to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.