Filed under the storylines no one expected, the Pittsburgh Penguins have won five of six games despite being out played in most, outshot in five, and with poor puck possession numbers. The Penguins took Game 1 of Round 2 in the same fashion they quickly vanquished the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1. The Penguins have become a counter-punch team. And… it is unsustainable.
For the diehard believers of Corsi and the fancier metrics, the Penguins success defies empirical data. A team should not be out-shot and outplayed, yet keep winning. The Penguins talent, coupled with Stanley Cup experience which keeps them calm in stressful times, has propelled them this far.
It won’t last. It can’t last.
The Penguins success won’t evaporate because their Corsi is poor, though surely articles will suggest as much. The Penguins cannot sustain their Stanley Cup run with poor puck possession because–that is not how they are built.
Some teams have rugged wingers who punish the opponent for playing with the puck. That physical play, at least when the wingers can remain in the same zip code, wears down opponents and eventually evens puck play.
The Penguins are getting the worst of both.
The Penguins wingers, a relatively small bunch, are not built to withstand a 7-game series against a deep team like the Washington Capitals, who play with consistent physicality. The same goes for any of the four Western Conference teams remaining. The Penguins wingers such as Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and especially Phil Kessel are not intimidating forces in their endzone.
While Rust is a gritty player, the crew is not hard on the puck. Attempts to play that way would be a divergence from their natural game. So, while opponents will find more success than a year ago by grinding the Penguins.
The run is unsustainable, as-is, because teams which yield vastly more scoring chances eventually stop scoring at high rates. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, The Penguins converted 32 of their 248 High Danger Chances, in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. A rate of 12.9%.
In the 2017 playoffs, the Penguins have converted nearly 17% of their high danger chances. Only the Nashville Predators have a higher conversion rate.
17% is unsustainable. If the Penguins converted only 12% of their chances, Columbus would be playing Washington this week.
Defense Not Built to Defend, Either
The Penguins defensemen, while valiant in Game 1, are not naturally adept at playing in their own zone. The addition of Ron Hainsey, at the trade deadline, now looks prescient. Hainsey is the type of defenseman who can handle his own zone when its swarming with opponents. Ian Cole, too. Cole was really, really, bigly, good in Game 1.
Some teams are built to defend first. To play hard on the puck, because they opponent has the puck. You guessed it, the Penguins are not that team.
If you wave a cape at the bull long enough, you’ll get the horns.
So, if the Penguins do not adapt to playing without Kris Letang, find ways to escape their own zone consistently, and find ways to generate more scoring chances, eventually… they’re going to have a bad time.
Fortunately, the Penguins have enough talent and smarts to cover until they do.