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What’s happened with these past two third periods?

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have had to lean heavily on their goalies in the past two wins.

Philadelphia Flyers v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins are two-for-two coming out of the bye week thanks to big wins over the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. Those wins helped them built a little more cushion between themselves and the Metropolitan teams chasing them in the Stanley Cup Playoff race, while also getting them a little closer to the Capitals in the race for first place. After Sunday’s regulation win in Washington they are four points back of the Capitals with a game in hand while also playing them three more times this season. The door is open for the division.

Given the results of the past two games it might seem like nitpicking to try and find reasons to be critical, but there is one pretty valid concern that showed up in those games.

They were also probably fortunate to win those two games.

Just what the heck happened in those two third periods? Because those were ugly.

You no doubt sensed how much the Penguins were on the heels watching them as they happened, and the numbers show just how much the Penguins were dominated in trying to close out those two games after entering each third period with the lead.

The 5-on-5 numbers over the two third periods:

Total goals: Penguins were outscored 3-1
Total shot attempts: Penguins were out-attempted 50-9
Total scoring chances: Penguins were out-chanced 27-2
Total high-danger scoring chances: Penguins were out-chanced 10-1

They all owe Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry a round of drinks or a meal for getting them wins in those games.

Given those numbers, I went back and looked at the past 10 games (including Friday and Sunday) where the Penguins held a lead going into the third period to see how they played in those games. Nothing more than score effects at work? Has this been a trend? Or was it just a two-game blip on the radar?

Here are the past 10 games.

(All data via Natural Stat Trick.)

It is expected that the game situation can have a pretty big impact on the pace of the game and shot totals. Teams that are winning in the third period will tend to sit back more. Teams that are losing take more chances, play more aggressively, and put more pucks at the net in an effort to get back into the game. Even if it is not a tactical change, human nature can sometimes take over. If you are playing for the winning team nobody wants to be the player that makes the mistake that lets the other team back in the game.

For the season the Penguins have been one of the league’s better teams at protecting leads, while the third period has been one of their best periods overall. They have come from behind in games, the third period is the period with their best overall goal differential, and their numbers when playing with the lead point to a team that is pretty good at closing the game.

Only three teams in the NHL allow fewer shot attempts per 60 minutes when playing with the lead than the Penguins do, while they are also top-10 in expected goals against and scoring chances against. They do not push the play anywhere near as much offensively as they do when the game is tied or when they are trailing, but again, this is expected.

When the lead is simply one goal — they are top-10 across the league in pretty much every defensive metric.

In other words, they have been pretty good at locking the game down and doing what they need to do to win.

Even looking at the table above and the previous eight times they took a lead into the third period, they did a better job of carrying the play. In those eight games they had a 13-6 lead on the scoreboard, and were pretty much 50-50 when it comes to scoring chances and high-danger chances. These past two games, for now, have been pretty substantial outliers.

The question, though, is why? Why such a sudden and dramatic shift in the way they protected a lead?

A few theories...

  1. Still shaking off the rust of the All-Star break and bye week. The Penguins went 10 days without playing a game and were clearly not as crisp as they had been before that. Both teams were a mess at times in the Flyers game.
  2. The quality of competition went up, especially on Sunday. It is one thing to protect a one-goal lead at home against New Jersey or Ottawa. It is something else entirely to have to do so on the road against a Washington team that is not only one of the best teams in the league, but one of your chief rivals and one that is in direct competition with you for the division title. They are capable of taking their game to an entirely different level than most teams, and on Sunday afternoon, they did. It is rare for one very good team to control the pace of play against another very good team for 60 full minutes. Each time will have its moments where they carry the play. It is not because one team took a period off or did not play a complete game, but rather the simple fact that the players on the other side are highly compensated professionals at the peak of their profession as well.
  3. On the other hand, if you go back a little further than the games listed on this table, the Penguins completely dominated the third period against St. Louis in a 3-0 shutout win in early December.
  4. They are still missing some key players that can help in these situations. Even though the Penguins are far healthier than they have been this season, they are still playing without Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, and Dominik Kahun right now. We know how good Guentzel and Dumoulin are and the impact they can make, but Kahun is one that can easily slide under the radar here. He has missed these past two games and has not only become an outstanding complementary piece after a slow start, he has been a huge part of the team’s overall improvement defensively. Taking a forward like that out of the lineup (when you are already without Guentzel) and replacing them with two call-ups is asking a lot.

Overall I do not think it is too much to be worried about. The Penguins have 52 games on their resume this season and have shown the type of team they are. Not only are they a damn good team, but they are a team that has for the most part played extremely well in the situations they struggled in the past two games. It might be something to keep an eye on here for a bit to see how they play these situations, but for now am going to write this off as a short-term blip, coming off of an extended break, against two really good teams that also happen to be the two biggest rivals. It happens.