The Penguins and Their Net-Front Presence

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Do the Penguins display an unwillingness to go to the net?

One of the stories people were peddling after the Penguins lost game 7 to the Rangers was that Pittsburgh didn't go to the dirty areas in front of the net enough. In a chat with readers, Dejan Kovacevic said that when watching other teams play hockey, "there's a willingness to go hard to the net, there's sacrifice" that you don't see with the Penguins. In writing his hatchet job on Sidney Crosby, Joe Starkey summed up Crosby's game by saying "Crosby often skirted the perimeter." No net-front presence there.

A couple of tweets took a similar path:

So how do we figure out if this is true? Easy: we watch the game. I went back and re-watched game 7 of the Rangers series and took a screenshot every time some Penguins player was in or near the crease during offensive zone pressure. I included the game clock in my shots so that you all can see I'm not making this stuff up. The pictures appear chronologically beginning with the start of the game (please click all images to enlarge them). My comments on some of the pictures appear above them.

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Though this puck bounced away, look at Crosby driving to the front of the net.

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This was a tip by Stempniak that just missed.

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Neal very wide-open in front.

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This is the one that bounced on Gibbons. But he was uncovered at the front of the net.

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Not sure how this isn't a crease violation.

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Rangers were beat again going to the front of the net.

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That's James Neal--a 40-goal scorer--standing on his own island right in front. The puck unfortunately took a Rangers bounce.

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Sidney "perimeter" Crosby standing very close to the blue paint.

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More perimeter play from Crosby.

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Kunitz with a clean look in front.

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No way a goal would have counted here with Joe Vitale doing his best Kunitz impression.

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James Neal--again!--completely alone in front with the puck on his stick.

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Malkin all alone in front with the puck on his stick. I thought the Rangers were good at defense?

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This puck deflected off of Stempniak.

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It's not even funny anymore. Neal...alone...in front.

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This puck went through Girardi (No. 5) and Kunitz had a good whack at it right out front.

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Neal's had enough.

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CROSBY IS ON THE PERIMETER AGAIN, SOMEONE CALL JOE STARKEY!!!

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The next six screenshots were from a single shift by Malkin's line. It's unbelievable they didn't score a goal here.

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Both Kunitz and Martin were in the crease following a power move by Martin to get the puck to the net. And all this on a team that apparently never goes to the front of the net.

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This is really damning. In one game, I found 46 separate instances of the Penguins going to the front of the net for tip-ins, deflections, and rebounds. In fact, I can't remember any sustained pressure in this game that didn't involve someone in a black uniform trying to make life miserable for Lundqvist. It actually became pretty routine: every time there was pressure in the zone, I'd get ready to snap a screenshot of the inevitable net-front play.

Even if you think some of the shots I took aren't "true" net-front play (whatever that means), there's still at least 40 screen shots here of Penguins players, in a single game, going to the net on offensive possessions. There's no way this is a team that's too soft to battle in front, or coached to play on the perimeter.

The only thing I can imagine someone saying who still isn't sold is that my sample of screenshots is too small, and that they'd want to see more game tape. I had serious doubts that the Penguins never went to the front of the net before I even looked at the game 7 tape. I am even more skeptical that their performance in this game was "unusual." But to see who's right, I decided to look at the net-front play in game 5 of this series, arguably the worst game for Pittsburgh. The screen shots follow.

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Neal had the tip in front.

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Gibby with the partial breakaway.

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Crosby tipping in a shot from the perimeter.

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Bennett's probably the softest player on the team and even he's going to the net.

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The Penguins player on the right is Number 87, nicknamed "perimeter" because he's scared of going to the net.

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Goc shanking one wide.

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"Perimeter" was again skirting the fringe area of the ice. Doesn't Crosby know you can't score goals without going to the "dirty" areas?

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No idea how this isn't goalie interference.

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Well there you have it. I stopped taking screenshots midway through game 5 because I realized I was collecting them at roughly the same rate as in game 7, despite game 5 being the worst showing from the Penguins. The Penguins weren't systematically avoiding the front of the net; taking any more photos would have crossed the threshold of redundancy.

If you're still screaming about sample size, you're delusional. We've got 62 shots from only one and a half games that show a consistent net-front presence from the Penguins. If I tracked the whole series, we'd have hundreds; if I did the whole year, we'd have thousands. And there would still be folks complaining that it wasn't the "right" net-front presence, or that the Penguins didn't go to the net with enough heart, or whatever other nonsensical reason people would come up with to fit their prepackaged narrative.

I always got the feeling that the "Penguins don't go to the net" crowd was synonymous with the anti-possession types who don't buy into using shots on goal. They'd dismiss Pittsburgh's big edge in shot attempts by saying they were weak wristers from fringe areas or shots without traffic in front. In other words, these people would argue that the Penguins' advantage in shots was dwarfed by the discrepancy in shot quality. But there's mountains of evidence that shot quality doesn't exist. And the screenshots above are only more evidence that the PIT-NYR series was not an example of the Penguins settling for low-percentage shots.

***

The Penguins go to the front of the net. They always have, and probably every other team does too. Those peddling the opposite narrative are lazy sportswriters who are trying to stir things up instead of digging for real stories. But the ironic thing is that the mainstream media types who write these stories are the first ones to dismiss the stats community because "it's an eyeball business" and requires you to actually "watch the game." But it's fair, after looking at all of the pictures above, to ask: if you don't think the Penguins go to the net, what game are these guys even watching?

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