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PHN Extra: Penguins’ Studs and Duds of the First Round

The Penguins didn’t crush the Flyers like the Jets crushed the Wild, but the champs were deserved winners.

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The Penguins may not have crushed the Flyers like the Jets crushed the Wild, but the defending champions were deserved winners in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series.

In owning the bigger share of shot attempts (52 percent) and scoring chances (54 percent) at even strength, the Penguins tilted the odds in their favor. Considering they shot at a 15 percent rate against three Flyers goalies, it’s actually a mild upset that it took six games to send Philadelphia home.

Perhaps an off series from the power play (15th of 16 playoff teams in shots created, 14th in chances created) was the reason the Penguins didn’t get a couple extra days of rest. Still, it’s never all that bad when you can do a little scouting from home, as the Penguins did Monday night while the Capitals vanquished the Blue Jackets.

Regardless of what’s to come, we can pick out some studs and duds in terms of driving play.

Obviously, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel notching 13 points apiece qualifies them for star status, but there were some other hidden gems and jabronis from Round 1 action …

Hold Those Lines?

I wrote last week on how Bryan Rust has seemed to bring out the best in Derick Brassard in limited action together. I’m pleased to report that analysis didn’t have the life of a gnat, as the line of Rust, Brassard and Conor Sheary put up a 56 percent shot share in 36:40 of even-strength ice time against the Flyers.

That was the best possession-based result for a Penguins line in the series, although Guentzel-Crosby-Patric Hörnqvist checked in at a cool 53 percent. The trio of Carl Hagelin, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel recorded a 49 percent shot share, but with a caveat. I don’t normally like to read much into a handful of events, but it’s worth noting Hagelin-Malkin-Kessel generated five high-danger chances in the series and allowed zero, per Natural Stat Trick.

Then, there’s the fourth line. While Riley Sheahan came up huge in Game 6, playing over 20 minutes while taking Malkin’s place in the lineup, his usual line with Tom Kühnhackl and Zach Aston-Reese was largely ineffective. They accounted for just 41 percent of the even-strength shots, so the Penguins were probably fortunate to break even (1-1) in goals when they were on the ice.

Don’t put that on Sheahan, though, as his 56 percent shot share in Game 6 might indicate. He was at 54 percent when not carrying Kühnhackl and Aston-Reese up and down the ice.

Bottoming Out

First thing’s first: No one on the blue line got hurt in the first round — at least not that we know of — so the Penguins rolled with six defensemen in all six games. No Matt Hunwick sightings yet.

Beyond the clean bills of health, most of the performances from the defense corps were just fine, thank you. Only the bottom pair of Jamie Oleksiak and Chad Ruhwedel were below 50 percent in shot share, and just barely at that, with a combined minus-3 in attempt differential. Only Kris Letang was a net negative in scoring chance differential, at minus-2.

If I had to pick a star of the blue line for the first round, it would be Justin Schultz. He had a 53 percent shot share, tying with Brian Dumoulin for the best of the D-men, to go with a 59 percent scoring-chance share. The Penguins were also at their best on the power play when Schultz was on the ice, creating shots and chances better than when Letang or Olli Määttä were manning the points.

If there’s one concern for the blue line, it’s Oleksiak. He averaged nearly three minutes less per game than Ruhwedel, so it seems the Big Rig is getting short shrift. Both Ruhwedel and Oleksiak performed better with other partners, but do you risk breaking up the other pairs to get the bottom pair going?

St. Patric

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Hörnqvist is rather important to the Penguins’ power-play efficiency. The champs drew 25 penalties in the first round, the most in the league entering Monday, converting on five.

With No. 72 alongside the usual top-unit gunners in the first round, the Penguins’ man-up group generated 15 chances in 15 minutes, not quite at regular-season levels but pretty close. With Guentzel in Hörnqvist’s spot, the number was five chances in seven minutes. That’s a slight downturn that might not mean anything once the sample size gets larger.

Of course, the Penguins would rather that sample size without Hörnqvist stay right where it is throughout the rest of the playoffs.

It probably wasn’t all that simple, though. The Penguins’ power play averaged 64 scoring chances per 60 minutes during the regular season, ranking sixth in the NHL. Against the Flyers in the first round, that number dropped to 41 per 60 minutes. The second unit has to take some blame as well, even though it chipped in the Penguins’ lone goal in 13 power play opportunities at home.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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