In one of my several previews detailed before the start of this round one slate between the Penguins and Flyers, one of them took a magnified look at how special teams can make, break, or even steal a series in the playoffs.
Game 1 didn’t call for that many power play goals from either team (Pittsburgh only tallied one), but Game 2 provided a clear indication that having the man-advantage can dispell the lackadaisical play from your team at even-strength. The Flyers, who were dominated at 5-on-5 via advanced metrics, capitalized on the Penguins being in the box twice. Shots were 37-19 in favor of the Penguins, and both their Corsi For and expended goals averages were way higher than Philadelphia’s, but the Flyers made do where it counted. They took advantage of lucky bounces — things out of the Penguins control, and scored on the power play twice.
Pittsburgh, owners of the top power play in the league, went 0-4 and didn’t produce any meaningful chances in any of the opportunies given to it. Out of the 37 aforementioned shots on goal, only three of them came on the man-advantage. That, paired with the excellent play and rebound control by Brian Elliott down the latter half of the tilt, was what caused the lop-sided look of the final score, and that’s what the difference in this game was.
Philadelphia’s penalty kill unit — one that struggled so much in the regular season, it ended up ranked 29th according to efficiency charts by the time the postseason began — stopped the top-ranked Penguins power play four times. Pittsburgh’s PP1 of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Justin Schultz has yet to net a goal on the man-advantage this series, and in Game 2, was completely shut down by a less than awful PK once again.
This is astounding when you consider the regular season numbers this PP has put up in head-to-head battles with the Flyers. In four contests, the Penguins went 5-13 with a massive 38.46% success rate (via Corsica Hockey). Now, with two full posteason games against Philly under Pittsburgh’s belt, that same first unit has yet to score once. The second unit is the only one to find twine so far.
So how are the Flyers stunting the Penguins best aspect?
A lot of it has to do with the way they apply their backcheck upon entry into their defensive zone and how they forced Pittsburgh to play and their speed rather than the Penguins’. Considering the 18 times the Penguins power play attempted to enter the Flyers zone, only half of those tries were successfully controlled. To boot, six of those attempts were hindered completely, and the puck never entered cleanly at all. That’s a whopping 33% failed entry rating, which according to major analysts, is bad for a team at even-strength, let alone one with the man-advantage.
But even more so, the Flyers are finding success by doing the “little things“ right, such as invading passing lanes during the Penguins offensive breakouts, applying smothering defense on the other side of the ice, getting their clears, not handing the puck off regularly or getting pick-pocketed by Pittsburgh’s foreheck, and eliminating the neutral zone altogether. Without easy lanes to fill, the Penguins are struggling to cross over Philly’s blue line and set up their lethal system. Instead, they’ve had to opt to chipping the puck into the bottom corners and pray possession is regained.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been working, and it’s killing their typical power play triumphs. It’s evident even when Pittsburgh’s trying to pass in the offensive zone. Their bad habit of trying to find that “perfect passing lane” stiffles their chances of putting pucks on net and creating scoring chances. Stressful memories of screaming “shoot the puck” are probably burned in many fans brains. It’s frustrating to watch, but I’m sure it’s even more itritating to them.
Ultimately, the Penguins did out-play the Flyers in Game 2, they just suffered from an early 2-0 deficit after two fluke goals and needed to crisp up their power play. In post-game media conferences, the players, namely Crosby, weren’t worried too much about the duration of the game itself, and neither should the rest of us.
Pittsburgh owned the game on paper from start to finish, it just needs to continue capitalizing on as many opportunities as its given and shoot more often in the remaining contests left in this series like the Flyers did Saturday night. Luck is one thing; skill is another.