At no point in these playoffs have the Pittsburgh Penguins been fully healthy.
The hockey world had known for weeks that Kris Letang, a premier defenseman in the sport, would miss the entire postseason. Starting goaltender Matt Murray only recently got back to full health. Trevor Daley missed time in the playoffs. As did Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin. Currently, Bryan Rust, Justin Schultz and Patric Hornqvist are on the shelf. Sidney Crosby hasn’t looked like himself since he came back (too early?) from that much-discussed concussion.
It’s a bad situation, but it’s not an excuse. Everyone’s banged up to varying degrees at this time of year, and it just so happens that some of the Penguins’ most important players are the ones who aren’t feeling so hot.
In any individual game, these absences haven’t really been major issues — Eastern Conference Final Game 3 goaltending aside — but the cumulative effect they’ve had are incredible. When Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey are your Nos. 1 and 2 defensemen in playoff ice time, you know you have a problem, especially because Mike Sullivan tends to not lean to heavily on his possession-driving centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Combined, Crosby and Malkin are out there for less than two-thirds of the game, and on power plays they actually play together, so that leaves a lot of wiggle room when you’re hoping Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen are keeping things moving in the right direction for you. Based on the regular-season results and what happened in last year’s playoffs, that’s all well and good when you have a full complement of players. But when lesser players are pressed into service for higher-leverage situations, the cracks in the system start to show.
Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, these are guys who can be serviceable for you against third and fourth lines, no problem. They’re good lower-level players and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when they have to eat relatively big TOI — thankfully coach Mike Sullivan realizes he can’t give Hainsey and Co. 24-plus minutes a night — against good competition, you get the past several games.
While Pittsburgh gutted out that series win against Washington — including playing a game and a half without Crosby — it kind of painted over a whole hell of a lot of procedural problems. The goals were still there, but they went from being a product of a solid team-based process that worked basically the entire first series to being the result of, shall we say, opportunistic scoring.
When you have as many high-quality scoring forwards as the Penguins do, and sprinkle them throughout the lineup, you’re going to be able to get goals that you don’t necessarily “deserve.” And if we’re looking at things in terms of expected goals, the Penguins have been pretty lucky to so far in all situations.
These numbers do not adjust for score effects, but you can see the general thrust: The Penguins beat up on Columbus pretty good, got pushed around in every game of the Washington series, and have mostly had the better of play against the Senators. Expected goals don’t always tell the full story because it looks at average players, and playoff teams typically outperform their expected goals numbers, but we’re looking at three at least decent opponents. Moreover, a lot of those numbers “feel” right, in terms of the Penguins having speedbagged Ottawa in Game 2, or having been dunked by Washington for pretty much all of their series but somehow finding ways to win.
Put another way, over the balance of the playoffs, the Penguins have been a roughly break-even team in all situations but largely because of how bad the Blue Jackets were in the opening round, they’re averaging a winning margin of about plus-0.4 goals per game.
This nicely illustrates the issue:
But if you look at things at 5-on-5, conditions are a lot worse for the Pens. Only plus-0.38 against Columbus, minus-4.8 against Washington, and minus-0.53 against Ottawa. That, too, feels right. Early in the playoffs, Pittsburgh dined out on its special teams success, but that has degraded as the postseason wore on. And at both ends of the ice.
They went 5-for-15 on the power play and 10-of-12 on the PK in the opening round, and statistically speaking, Columbus was lucky to get off that easy.
But then against Washington, it was just 3 of 22 on the man advantage and only 18 of 23 shorthanded. Much worse overall, but the power play goals against weren’t really spread out very much, with two each coming in Games 3 and 6.
And now against Ottawa, they’re 1 of 9 on the PP (and that one coming in Game 3 when they were already done for the night) and 7 of 7 on the kill, which is a mix of bad and absolutely optimal. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that Ottawa isn’t exactly overflowing with talent after their top power play unit, and also, obviously, random chance.
My theory with all this is that as the Penguins have gotten increasingly banged-up in this postseason and guys like Dumoulin and Hainsey and Chad Ruhwedel are getting more special-teams time than they’re used to, the team’s performance in those situations is going to worsen.
In a lot of ways, Pittsburgh was lucky to have gotten this far given the state of the roster, and I think it’s a credit to the players who can still play and Sullivan for maximizing results on on special teams when he could.
But now the mileage is piling up, and if Ottawa can continue to dominate the big Crosby/Karlsson matchup (through Karlsson’s incredible power and Crosby running at something that’s certainly less than 100 percent) then it becomes a little easier to quiet down the Malkin line.
Against Columbus and Washington, it didn’t matter that the depth players couldn’t really get much traction. Now, unfortunately, it matters very much. The problem for Sullivan is that there’s probably not much he can do to fix this problem other than enlist a team of doctors from a comic book movie to get everyone back to 100 percent before tonight’s Game 4.
That would probably help a lot.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.
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