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The Penguins Powerplay in the NYR Series

A look at how the league's best PP unit during the regular season ran cold at the worst possible time.

Jamie Sabau

I previously took a look at the Penguins-Rangers series from this year by counting scoring chances at even strength (article here). What I found was that the the Penguins significantly out-chanced the Rangers, so there's no basis to claim they were limited to garbage shots from the perimeter. I avoided counting scoring chances on the powerplay because they're not helpful in explaining what went wrong in that situation. Here, I look at other metrics to try and figure out why the powerplay scored only one goal in seven games.

Last year when the Penguins played the Bruins in the playoffs, they scored zero PP goals in four games. But it wasn't because of anything special the Bruins did. I found that the Penguins generated roughly as many shot attempts from similar distances as they did in their previous playoff series where they scored a number of goals with the man advantage.

For the New York Rangers series, I broadened the sample by looking at the Penguins' shot rates on the PP in the regular season this year and compared that to their shot rates on the PP in the Rangers series. I also included shooting percentages.

PP CF/60 PP FF/60 PP SH%
13-14 Regular Season 107.6 82 13.5%
PIT-NYR Series 100.5 82.9 3.7%

We can see that the shot rates were pretty similar. The Penguins generated a few more Corsi events in the regular season, but were actually more efficient in the playoffs at getting their shot attempts through (which we can tell from their higher FF/60). So the Rangers didn't do anything strategically special to limit the Penguins' chances. It's clear they were using the same set-up from the regular season and it was producing at a similar rate.

The big difference is obviously shooting percentage. Shooting percentage can fluctuate wildly in small samples though, so it's not obvious that there was an "adjustment" that could have fixed this. More to the point, there were a few instances from the regular season this year where the Penguins only scored 1 goal on the powerplay in a span of 5 or more games.

PP Goals
January 5-20 (6 games) 1
March 10-20 (6 games) 1
March 27-April 5 (6 games) 1

So what happened in the Rangers series wasn't unprecedented for this team. And it wouldn't be unprecedented for any other team: every team's PP goes cold at multiple points in the season. Note also that the chances of going cold are better in the playoffs when you're playing one good team for an extended period of time. The Penguins' powerplay shooting percentage was driven in part by getting to play teams like the Islanders and the Sabres, which don't have good goalies or a good PK unit. If the Penguins played the Rangers for 82 games, their PP shooting percentage would naturally be lower.

There isn't really any other data that's publicly available which can break down PP contributions and tell us what happened. I have a suspicion that faceoffs are important, and that data recently became available on extra skater, so I plan on looking into it in a later piece. For now, I decided to re-watch all of the Pittsburgh powerplays in the Rangers series and track three things: (1) zone entries (did the Penguins carry or dump the puck in?); (2) turnovers; and (3) loose-puck battles along the boards. The results for each individual are in the table below.

Board Battles Won Board Battles Lost Turnovers Carry-In Dump-In
Crosby 7 7 6 3 0
Malkin 3 3 8 12 2
Niskanen 0 3 2 4 1
Jokinen 1 1 1 2 0
Kunitz 5 2 1 4 0
Maatta 1 1 1 0 1
Neal 3 5 2 6 1
Sutter 1 2 2 1 1
Letang 1 0 2 3 4
Martin 0 0 2 1 0
Totals 22 24 27 36 10

The first thing I noticed is that zone entries were not a problem on the powerplay. The Penguins carried the puck into the zone and established possession nearly 80% of the time. We don't have carry-in rates around the league to know exactly how good this is, but it can't get much better. And most of their dump-ins came from one player (Letang) who didn't see much time on the first unit. The takeaway is that Malkin and Neal did the heavy lifting when it came to bringing the puck in, and the Rangers generally didn't have an answer.

I don't think we can rely too much on the turnover stat. As expected, Crosby and Malkin led the team in this count, but that's likely a product of the fact that they had the most PP ice time and that they touch the puck the most. Just like giveaways aren't useful since they're skewed in favor of good players, the same is true here. However, it's worth noting that it would have been truly incredible if Crosby/Malkin didn't lead the team in turnovers given how often they presumably had the puck. If that were true, then there would be little room for criticism. Nevertheless, that they led in turnovers is likely what we expected, and we have to look at other stats to evaluate their play.

The last metric I tracked was battles along the boards. It was disappointing to see that the Penguins lost more of these than they won. Neal and Niskanen were the main culprits, whereas Kunitz was the only player who was decidedly positive. The bigger story though is that Crosby only won half his battles. We'd expect him to be involved in a lot of 50/50 battles since his spot along the half-wall and the goal line is where pucks are most often loose. Given how important he is to our team, and how much we're paying him, we needed him to win more than 50% of those battles. Crosby underwhelmed in this regard.


Overall, nothing went seriously wrong with the powerplay in this series. The Penguins generated the same number of shots as they did during the regular season but didn't get their bounces. This is not unusual; they went through similar cold stretches during the regular season. Slicing this further, we can tell by looking at the individual data that zone entries weren't a problem, and turnovers were also likely a non-issue. But Crosby and Malkin each needed to be better along the boards, and in that sense, they were disappointing.

The faceoff data on the powerplay might provide additional nuggets of information, which is something I'll look into next time. But for now, it looks like the strategy/system/gameplan for the powerplay was sound. It was mostly some crappy luck and a little bit of poor execution that stood in the way of more goals.