Have the Pittsburgh Penguins Emerged as Stanley Cup Favorites?

The Penguins have caught the Capitals, pulling into a tie for the most points in the league. Per our numbers, is Washington still the favorite or have the Pens taken the reigns?

We saw it last year, when the Pittsburgh Penguins get hot, they can get really hot.

A scorching-hot streak last season helped them win the Stanley Cup for the second time since 2009, and through three quarters of this NHL season, Pittsburgh appears to only have gotten stronger, rounding into form at the right time.

When the Washington Capitals acquired defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, it seemed like they would run away with the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference, but that has not been the case. Instead, a four-game losing streak has dropped them into a tie with the Pens, who are getting hot, posting a 7-2-1 mark over their last 10 games.

Per our metrics, the Pens are currently slated to end the year with 112.8 points while Washington is projected to post 113.1 points -- meaning they're pretty much dead even.

Considering the recent form of each team, is Pittsburgh the new favorite to emerge as Stanley Cup champions? Let's take a look at what is going on with Sidney Crosby and company out in the Steel City.

The Big Three

It's no surprise who's leading the way for the defending champs.

The trio of Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin and Crosby have been the focal point of the scoring network for the Penguins through a mix of heavy even-strength and power-play scoring. Patric Hornqvist, rookie Jake Guentzel, Nick Bonino and Conor Sheary are providing a bulk of the secondary scoring from the same outlets of production.

This scoring network is part of the reason why the Penguins have scored a league-high 239 goals this season. They also boast a remarkable 27-4-3 record at the PPG Paints Arena this season, the best home record in the NHL.

The Matt Murray Impact

Another reason why the Penguins have been one of the NHL's best is the main reason why they won the Stanley Cup during the 2016 campaign -- Matt Murray.

The 22-year-old goaltender originally from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, has proven his dominance over the NHL since his 15-win performance throughout the playoffs last season brought Lord Stanley's hardware back to the Steel City.

His dominance has only continued this season, despite being sidelined for a short period of time due to several injuries. As it stands right now, Murray holds a record of 26-8-3 in 38 starts, boasting a .925 save percentage and 2.33 goals against average.

Corsica takes into account the advanced metrics of goal-tending to further illustrate the dominance that is No. 30 for the Black and Gold. The statistics below illustrate rankings for goalies who have played a minimum of 1,500 minutes, so that data is limited to only starters.

MetricMatt MurrayRank
Low-Danger Save Percentage97.98%11th
Medium-Danger Save Percentage93.75%4th
High-Danger Save Percentage83.04%6th
Save Percentage92.52%5th
Goals Saved Above Average17.64th
Average Distance of Shot29.64 feet8th

In the same vein, Murray's excellent play can be illustrated by this chart -- which comes from HockeyViz -- that shows the relative locations of shots given up by the Penguins.

As we can see, Murray's success in saving shots from high-danger and medium-danger locations is pretty stellar. The Pens have given up a lot of high-danger chances, and Murray has turned those shots away at a superb rate.

So Who is the Eastern Conference Favorite -- Pens or Caps?

If you asked this question two weeks ago, when the Capitals acquired Kevin Shattenkirk, it would've been easy to list Washington as a clear favorite. After all, at that time, our metrics gave them a 22.28% chance of winning it all.

Now, the Capitals odds of winning the Stanley Cup have lowered to 16.64%. That puts them narrowly ahead of the West-leading Minnesota Wild (16.40) while the Penguins (9.80%) have the third-best odds and the Columbus Blue Jackets (9.76%) are fourth. With the New York Rangers (8.20%) sitting with the fifth-best odds, the Eastern Conference is going to be an all-out slugfest.

Our nERD metric gives the Penguins a 0.72 rating, meaning Pittsburgh would be expected to beat a league-average opponent on neutral ice by 0.72 goals. At the time of Shattenkirk's acquisition, the Capitals' nERD sat at 1.07, which was far and away the best mark in the league (the second-place team was at 0.80). Today, the Capitals have a 0.92 nERD. While that's still a league-best mark, it shows the league is only getting tighter as the playoffs get closer.

As it stands now, the Capitals and Penguins are expected to do battle in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and that matchup would have a big impact on the rest of the postseason. Only time will tell who will come out of that fierce rivalry, but as it stands, the Penguins look to be a lot closer to the Caps than they were two weeks ago.