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Can the Penguins tighten up on defense?

Indicators are showing that the style the Pittsburgh Penguins have played in 2016-17 isn't conducive to playoff success. A look at why that is, how the team knows they have to be tighter defensively and some guesses at possible ways to improve.

Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a lot of things, but boring certainly is not one of them. The Pens ranks so far this season include:

  • 1st in the NHL in goals/game (3.54)
  • t-1st in shots/game (34.4)
  • 4th-from-last in shots against/game (32.4)
  • 5th from the best power play, 7th from the worst penalty kill

What does this mean? Probably what your eyes do just about every game- the Pens play a wide-open style and a lot of rubber flies at (and into) both nets in the games they're involved in.

The issue: Too Many Shots Against

This is a good thing for entertaining and interesting games, but not necessarily a good thing for the future. An article last week on Japers Rink illustrated this perfectly when looking at "deep playoff potential rankings". Their work, based on the formula of Micah Blake McCordy essentially could be summarized as:

His findings essentially revealed that there are three regular season traits that correlate most strongly to playoff success: shot suppression (CA/60), shot generation (CF/60), and goaltending (5v5 Sv%).

That makes sense, if you limit the shots the opponent takes, maximize the shots your team takes and you get strong goaltending- that's usually a good recipe for success. And, indeed it is- in the last five years, of the NHL's Conference Finalists (the final 4 teams left), 14 out of 20 teams ranked in the top-10. There's always exceptions to the rule (like a red hot goalie or power play) that prove a team doesn't have to follow this exact blueprint, but generally good teams win playoff series and it's a pretty good measure of what makes a good team good.

Japers calculated this season's potential and the Penguins came in just 13th so far in the 2016-17 season (they were 2nd last season, by comparison). The reason? Pittsburgh is just 23rd in Corsi Allowed, and 17th in 5v5 save %, to go along with a solid 3rd in Corsi For.

They know they need to tighten up

Some good news is this obviously isn't something that Penguins coaches and management are unaware of. Here's Mike Sullivan after practice yesterday:

"You can't always control the goals," Sullivan said. "What you can control is the process — how you play and limiting teams' opportunities, more specifically their Grade-A opportunities. If you do that, usually the goals-against comes down. We discuss that with our team consistently about becoming a harder team to play against, a playoff-type team. That has to be part of our identity moving forward."

He's literally talking about the factors above that we harp on.

"It's very important to tighten it up defensively," Trevor Daley also said yesterday. Lip service is one thing, actions speak louder so we'll see how they can handle it.

Potential solutions?

One leg to improve the "deep playoff potential ranking" is easy to determine and in fact has already happened. The Penguins are a middle-of-the-pack 17th in 5v5 save % in the league so far this season. Currently, Marc-Andre Fleury has played slightly more than half of the minutes of Pittsburgh season and is just 32nd out of 40 NHL goalies in 5v5 save % at .916%. Matt Murray is 12th out of the 40 with a .932 5v5 save%.

Switch in Murray for Fleury, as the Pens have done starting Murray in the last 6 games, and their potential for a longer playoff run improves with a goalie stopping more pucks.

Health could swing in Pittsburgh's favor as well. Kris Letang appears close to healthy again, he's missed almost 40% of the season so far with various injuries. Brian Dumoulin is back after missing a month with a broken jaw and Trevor Daley's missed a handful of games too. Tough to suppress shots when the blueline is constantly rotating and shuffling in and out players better suited for AHL action.

There's a possibility general manager Jim Rutherford could step in and make a trade as well, though adding anything of huge meaning seems like a long-shot in today's NHL were big trades are tough to make, especially during the season.

The other solutions are better tasked for Mike Sullivan and the boys to figure out how to play a tighter brand of hockey as winter turns to spring. They simply can't be allowing the volume of shots against when the games matter, or else they will be facing a majorly uphill battle early in the playoffs with series against potentially both Washington (1st in sv%, 4th in CA) and Columbus (4th in save%, 16th in CA) that are either limiting more shots and getting elite goaltending.