With the playoffs come expectations. Teams like this year's Penguins are expected to go far, and the fan base (myself included) will be immeasurably disappointed and distraught if the team is not able to make a deep run at the Cup. For some, this will be exaggerated by what they perceive as a string of disappointments in the previous three postseason outings. But perhaps because the playoff performances of previous seasons are distant memories, many recollections of those series don't match up with what actually happened. As painful as it might be, I'd like to open up some old wounds and reexamine what actually happened the last three years in the playoffs, and use that to expand into a discussion of the expectations for this year.
After winning the Cup, we beat the Senators in six games in 2010 and went on to play the Canadiens. Everyone knows how that series ended. The Penguins dominated the Canadiens in shots, but some might think this loss was the result of bad coaching or a bad team that was content with lots of perimeter shots that weren't dangerous. I don't think either of those claims are true. Instead, the Penguins were simply the victims of rotten luck.
In the aftermath of the Penguins' loss, Gabriel Desjardins went back and re-watched every game of the series, and tallied up a number of different events that aren't kept by the NHL. These included scoring chances, whether shooters were covered, and the amount of rebounds and screens each team had. These numbers confirmed that the Penguins had the bulk of possession and quality scoring chances but simply couldn't bury them behind a hot Jaroslav Halak. For instance, the Penguins had 159 scoring chances during the 7 game series while Montreal only had 89. Thus, this was not a case of the Penguins collecting a high total of soft shots; they got plenty of high quality opportunities but simply couldn't put them in the back of the net. The rest of the numbers tell a similar story - each team had a similar number of rebound opportunities and screens, and the Penguins even had more breakaways. Here is Gabe's conclusion:
Call it luck, call it personal performance highs - either way, it's not a persistent talent - it's something we all know might come crashing to the ground tomorrow. Of course, that means nothing is certain: nine times out of ten, Pittsburgh or Washington would be in the conference finals...This was time #10.
In short, the Penguins did what they were supposed to do but unfortunately lost because they didn't get the bounces they needed. These things happen. Perhaps the only thing of note from this series was that despite facing nearly 50% fewer scoring chances, Fleury still gave up more goals than Halak.
The following year, the Penguins lost in the first round to the lightning. I don't have much to say here because I don't think this requires much explanation. The Penguins were without Crosby and Malkin and were seriously handicapped on offense. I thought this showed throughout the series, as the team struggled to score more than 2 goals a game. The reality (for me at least) is that getting to the playoffs when you play half the season without your two best players is an incredible accomplishment, and nothing more should reasonably be expected of the team. It stings to have lost the series after being up three games to one, but with such a paltry offense, it wasn't hard for Tampa to come back.
Last year was the first year in Bylsma's tenure with the team that the squad was pushed to an early exit that couldn't be explained by things beyond their control (luck in 2010 and injuries in 2011). I'll be clear up front: it's tough to know exactly why we lost to the Flyers in six games last year. That series was crazy by all accounts given the goal scoring rates and special teams breakdowns. Perhaps the easiest answer is just that the Flyers matched up on the Pens well and were able to beat them four times in six games.
Yet in the hopes of providing a little more depth to our understanding of that series, I went back and re-watched all of the goals scored against the Penguins and divided them into scoring chances and non-scoring chances. I also divided them into the game state in which they were scored (i.e. even strength, powerplay). In total, the Flyers scored 28 non-empty net goals that series. Here they are divided by game state:
It's startling to realize that the Penguins were victimized more often while on special teams than at even strength. But as I re-watched the goals, I didn't see many that were the product of a bad system. Guys were where they needed to be and had their sticks on the ice. It just seemed like the Flyers were able to make perfect cross-ice passes time and again, and that Fleury could never make a big save to rob a would-be goal.
I next divided the goals into chances and non-chances. As a rule thumb, I expect goalies to stop all non-scoring chance shots, since these aren't that dangerous. The point of this was to see how often Fleury was giving up goals that should never have been scored in the first place. Here is the chart:
The last row labelled "chance but MAF fault" are the instances where the initial shot was a scoring chance, but the subsequent goal was a direct result of a mistake by Fleury. Two of the instances I counted involved bad rebounds by Fleury. The other two involved scoring chances that could have been covered to freeze play but were not frozen due to a mistake by Fleury.
What I take this to mean is that Fleury was at fault for 12 goals that series, which averages out to two per game. That, to me, is absolutely inexcusable, especially in the playoffs. Said another way, 43% of the goals allowed by Fleury were either soft or the direct result of Flower's miscues. This has nothing to do with the defense because these are instances where the goalie should be expected to make a save. Even assuming the 16 scoring chances could all result in goals because the defense hung Fleury out to dry, its still a huge problem that 12 more goals were given up because of bad goaltending. Perhaps this shouldn't be unusual: Fleury has failed to put up a .900 save percentage or higher the last three playoff appearances.
And that brings us to this upcoming playoff series. It's easy to heap massive expectations on this team because of the star power they had at the beginning of the year. Surprisingly, those expectations exploded to even greater heights as the team acquired Iginla, Morrow, Murray, and Jokinen at the trade deadline. But it would be foolish to ignore the fact that this has been a team in flux for the past month. We haven't yet been able to play a game with everyone healthy, and many other players are still taking some time to adjust to game speed since coming back. I do think the Penguins can dominate the Islanders and make this a quick series, but some struggles along the way shouldn't be unexpected given the revolving door of injured players this season.
The other big factor affecting the team's expectations is Fleury. Fortunately, he put together a relatively strong regular season campaign (though he hasn't looked too sharp in the last three games). And I am hoping the memories of failure from years past are fresh enough for him so that he works harder than he has before to put on a good show. Of course, one thing we can say for sure is that the Penguins will inevitably have some defensive breakdowns this playoff season. Our opponents will get scoring chances and odd man rushes. But Fleury needs to make big saves to keep us in the game. It's not enough to say "that was a scoring chance, he couldn't have done anything." You need your goalie to stop some of those shots if you're going to win in the long run, and Fleury did that in 2009 en route to the Cup. He stopped Jeff Carter point blank in game 2 in the first round; he was a wall on Ovechkin's breakaway in Game 7 in round 2; he stopped a chance in tight on Eric Staal in Game 1 of the third round; and he stood tall on a Dan Cleary breakaway in Game 6 of round 4. I want Fleury to do this again.
I believe in this team and I believe in Fleury. Hopefully the future proves me right.