Monday, June 20, 2016

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ NHL Fairy Tale

June 18, 2016

(Credit: AP/ Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby waves to the crowd while holding onto the Stanley Cup while riding along the victory parade route in Pittsburgh, Pa., Wednesday, June 15, 2016.

As a Tampa Bay Lightning fan, I can say without a doubt that the Pittsburgh Penguins are a tough team. I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed it. My team was eliminated by them. Trust me, the Penguins are tough. That’s why they just won the Stanley Cup in six games against the statistically-better Sharks. But where did it all begin? When did the Penguins get so good?
It seemed like yesterday that the Penguins were struggling to win in the regular season. It seemed like yesterday they fired Mike Johnston and brought in Mike Sullivan in a desperate attempt to salvage the season. It seemed like yesterday they were having injury problems and had no shot at passing the New York Rangers or New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division.
Then all of a sudden, they’re celebrating with champagne after beating the Rangers, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, and San Jose Sharks to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2009. What… what happened? In a blur of yellow and black, they gained control of the series against the Sharks and commanded their way to victory. This will be a narrative about how the Penguins went from unimpressive, over-talented underachievers to eventual cup-kissers.

The Penguins got off to a hot start, as they met the high expectations placed upon them. They began 9-4-0, beating good teams like Washington and Florida. They outshot opponents in 9 of those 13 games, even though the offense struggled to score. The offense was shaky as they were only scoring 1.93 goals per game, so the defense had to step up in order for the team to stay over .500.

A third of the way through the season, the Penguins were a mediocre 15-14-3. The team had picked up Phil Kessel, Ben Lovejoy, and Nick Bonino in the offseason, yet the team was underperforming. A team that had so much talent struggled to win consecutive games following their strong 9-4-0 start.
At this time, the Penguins weren’t on the minds of, well, anybody. Most were focused on the Rangers returning to prominence, the Islanders proving last year wasn’t a fluke, and the Canadiens putting together a franchise-record start to the season. Oh but how the scripts would change. And they would change quickly. 
After a 15-10-3 start, on Dec. 15, 2015, the Penguins cleaned house by firing Mike Johnston and assistant coach Gary Agnew. The Penguins chose to promote Mike Sullivan to Head Coach from the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and move Jacques Martin to help helm the bench.
Many fans were surprised by the Penguins’ coaching changes. The Pens had just fired a good coach with a decent record, seemingly just because they weren’t dominating other teams. Johnston led the Penguins to the postseason last year despite an aging roster and an inconsistent defense. He was 58-37-14 in his second season as head coach. Some teams would kill to have a coach with that record in their first two seasons. Yet the Penguins decided they were better of without him. A lot of fans were skeptical that it was the right decision.
The skepticism at first seemed warranted as they lost four straight games and six of the next nine games under Sullivan’s new coaching style. Even cycling through three different goaltenders, they still lost games and suffered at the hands of chopped-liver teams such as Winnipeg and Toronto. 
At this point, some people were ready to write them off. They scored 2.4 goals per game over their first ten games following the coaching change, and they were allowing 2.6 goals per game. That wasn’t even close to being good enough to make it to the postseason. Any fan can tell you that if you allow more goals per game than you score, the team is unsustainable and will eventually get stuck in a hole. They also hadn’t shown much change on the ice, and they were in even worse shape than before.
After the 15-game stretch immediately following Johnston’s departure, the Penguins started to gradually improve. They went 29-11-5 over the remainder of the season. They were scoring 3.35 non-shootout goals per game during this 5-6-4 stretch and were allowing 2.44 non-shootout goals per game. They were scoring nearly a goal more than they were allowing every game, and that basically continued until the end of the season.
They also picked up Carl Hagelin from the Ducks at the trade deadline during this time, and he made his mark on the team registering 27 points in 37 games. He was also fourth on the team in plus-minus rating (+18) in the regular season, meaning that he played a great two-way game which was something that the Penguins had sorely lacked. This might actually go down as one of the most underrated pickups of the season. People expected Hagelin to provide depth on the roster, but not contribute at this level of production.
After the slow start to the Sullivan era of Pittsburgh hockey, the Penguins didn’t lose three games in a row for the rest of the season. Avoiding the ‘snowball effect’ often spells success for teams in the league, and the Penguins certainly knew how to stop losing streaks before they even became streaks. 
Toward the end of the season, they went on the hottest win streak in the league. One could argue that Washington, Chicago, or Florida had the best win streak of the season, but none were as critical as Pittsburgh’s. They had two win streaks, a six-gamer and an eight-gamer, at the end of the season, separated only by a single shutout loss to the Devils. 
The eight-gamer was likely the most important win streak of the season. Not because it was the team’s longest streak of the season. Not because it came at a time when they really needed it. Not because it catapulted them ahead of the Rangers and cushioned their lead in the Metro Division. But because this was when the Sullivan ultimately decided which goaltender he would start for the postseason.
Marc-Andre Fleury started the win streak against the Detroit Red Wings and went on to play two of the next three games. But then he suffered a concussion against the New York Islanders, and Matt Murray was thrust into the limelight as the starting goaltender.
Murray ended up playing five games during that eight-game win streak and won every single contest. If this was an opportunity given to him by fate, he sure as heck took full advantage of it. At this time, it was likely that Sullivan decided to go with the young up-and-comer instead of the experienced veteran. And considering Fleury’s inconsistent and lackluster postseason statistics, it might have been a move that actually saved the Penguins. 
This win streak also showcased their roster depth as Evgeni Malkin, Olli Maatta, and Brian Dumoulin were also absent due to injury. The streak seemed to give confidence to a team that fought through injuries to clinch a postseason spot. This became apparent when players like Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary scored their first goals under pressure in the playoffs.
So that’s how the Penguins got back to the Stanley Cup Finals. As for why the Penguins were so good in the postseason, it all leads back to their offense, goaltending, and blocking.
They were shooting more shots than a shootout from a scene in ‘Shanghai Noon’. Excluding the Finals, the Penguins outshot opponents by nearly 100 shots in 18 games (631 vs 534) in the postseason. That’s a staggering 5.4 more shots per game than their opponents, including series against two Top-Six defenses in the league. During the Finals, they outshot the Sharks in five of the six games in the series. They had 206 shots (34.3 shots per game) compared to 139 shots for the Sharks (23.2 shots per game). On average, they shot 11 more times per game than the Sharks, which is a huge leap from their other playoff series. That disparity in shots taken is a huge reason why they won the Stanley Cup.
This is nothing new for the Penguins. They also outshot opponents in 71% of their regular season games. They have a fierce offense that can continually pressure any opponent, regardless of how good the defensemen are. Throughout the entire postseason, no team was able to keep the Penguins from getting shots off. It was impossible. That’s why the only option for teams was to weather the Penguins’ flurry of attacks and wait for counterattack opportunities.
The Rangers were unable to do it. The Capitals were unable to do it. The Lightning came close, but even they couldn’t prevent such an overbearing offense from scoring. The blame could be split between defensive liabilities (bad defensive players breaking assignments) and bad defensive schemes. But truthfully, the Penguins are offensively built with roster depth, and they recently embraced speed as their main weapon of attack.
This is not to say the Penguins’ defense didn’t have an effect on the outcome of each series. Throughout the postseason, they had414 blocks in 24 games resulting in an impressive average of 17.25 blocked shots per game. That’s a lot of meat-shielding. That’s why seven of their players rank among the top 37 shot blockers in the postseason. 
And of course, there’s Murray to prevent any of those shots from getting through. To end the playoffs, he had a .923 save percentage and a 2.08 GAA in 21 games. That puts him up there with the top three goaltenders in the postseason alongside Braden Holtby and Ben Bishop. He had better numbers this postseason than Fleury did in seven of his nine career postseason appearances. While benching Fleury must have been a tough decision, it was the best move for the team. 
Through the combination of well-placed blocks, a quick and explosive offense, and solid goaltending, the Penguins created a formula that helped them win throughout their fairy tale Stanley Cup run. In the end, there’s only one explanation for their success this season. They cheated” is what I would like to say as a Lightning fan, but when all is said and done, they reached the finals on the backs of offensive power, good rookie goaltending, a more experienced coach, and a defense that stepped up when they needed to. This success is a fairy tale story that will not be forgotten in seasons to come. 

* Stats from ESPN

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