One of the most pivotal series for the Pittsburgh Penguins road to the Stanley Cup was in the second round against the Washington Capitals. The Caps were the league's best regular season team, and also the only team to hang with the Pens all playoffs long when it came to 5v5 shots.
Pittsburgh found a way to win the series but one thing that stood out was the lack of production from their top players. Sidney Crosby had no goals and two assists in the six games of the Caps series. Evgeni Malkin scored only scored one goal (in Game 1) and had 1 assist. Those surface numbers are underwhelming, so the Pens were pretty lucky to win despite not getting much tangible from the big guns, right?
Well, not exactly. This excellent feature from a blog called The Energy Line put the Capitals/Penguins series under the microscope. It's lengthy and worth a read, you'll definitely learn some interesting details about what happened.
One point made:
the Penguins had an answer for most of what Washington was trying to do and capitalized on more of their chances. It’s interesting to see how identical these two teams are in regards to how they created their offense. In my previous series breakdowns, there’s usually one team creating significantly more shots off faceoffs or turnovers. This time, both teams created a similar percentage of their shots the same way. Pittsburgh was a little more reliant on carry-ins than Washington, but not significantly so. Goes to show how tight of a matchup this was.
Something that was apparent when watching this series was that Pittsburgh had control of the neutral zone and the numbers bear that out to an extent. Washington had more overall entries, which might be why they had a slight territorial advantage, but Pittsburgh was able to carry the puck over the line at a much higher rate. They were also generating more shots off their entries than Washington regardless of how they got the puck into the zone, and at a much higher rate than they were in their series against the Rangers.
Pittsburgh’s success in the neutral zone also extends to the defensive side, as they forced the Caps to dump the puck in on nearly 55% of their entries
Crosby had a lot to do with this, his carry in % rate according to their research was an astounding an eye-popping 88%, far and away the highest of either team. Phil Kessel and Evgeny Kuznetsov were next at 74% each.
The praise for Malkin was even more evident
Like I said in the Dallas-Minnesota recap, when a player breaks the scale on your graph, you know he had a good series. That might be underselling what Malkin did against Washington. His line with Kunitz and Fehr/Rust had a monstrous series in terms of shot differential and a lot of it was Malkin carrying them on his back. He wasn’t that active as a shooter, but as a passer, no one in the playoffs has outperformed what he did this series. Whether it was Rust, Kunitz, Fehr, a defenseman or the rare shift he got with Kessel, Malkin found anyone who was relatively open and was responsible for over 53% of the shot attempts he was on the ice for. It’s obscene for a forward with his minutes to post those kinds of numbers in a six game series and he could have easily posted a ridiculous scoring line if his linemates finished at a higher rate.
Luckily Bryan Rust found more scoring later in the playoffs, because the data shows that Malkin did have to do a lot of heavy lifting without much results. This is a downside of the talent split of keeping talented wingers in Carl Hagelin and Kessel on the 3rd line and elevating guys without a scoring track record to play top-6 roles.
However, the upside was obvious too (as the data shows) with the Hagelin - Nick Bonino - Kessel line picking apart Washington's weaker defensemen like Dmitry Orlov, who their data showed did not have a very good series.
All in all, a great summer read with some breakdowns of how Kris Letang defended Alex Ovechkin and how Crosby and Malkin would advance through the zone. The Pens needed Matt Murray to be strong in Game 3, and he was. It's a great summer read and highly recommended.