Just a few observations so far on what we have seen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and what lessons, if any, the Pittsburgh Penguins can or should take from them.
There is always a danger in trying to take too much from a seven-game series because there are so many variables that go into why teams win or lose, but a few things have still stood out in a meaningful way.
Goaltending is king
This, really, is the biggest thing and it really should not be up for debate.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning have not really played consistently great so far, but they are 6-2 and have a 2-0 series lead in their Second Round series with an outstanding Carolina Hurricanes team.
Why? Because they have Andrei Vasilevskiy and nobody else does.
We know what happened in the Penguins-New York Islanders series.
Montreal shut down Toronto for three straight games in large part because of Carey Price.
The Winnipeg Jets swept Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and the rest of the Edmonton Oilers on the back of an insane Connor Hellebuyck performance.
Look at any advanced analytic or stat in the First Round and you see the outcomes being split almost 50-50. Teams that won the shot share, scoring chance share, expected goal share were pretty much a 50 percent chance to win the series.
But the teams that had the highest all situations save percentage? They were 7-1 in the opening round. Toronto was the only team that won the save percentage battle in its series and did not advance.
The five teams that had the five lowest all situations save percentages combined to go 5-20 in the First Round, including two of them (Edmonton and St. Louis) that ended up getting swept.
Be careful which narrative you follow in building your team
In the wake of Toronto’s fifth straight First Round loss we have already heard about them not having the right mix of players and how they are too analytically focused. That they need intangibles, and defense, and etc. Even though they had the second best goals against average in the First Round and spent the past year loading their roster with grizzled, gritty, tough veterans. It did not work.
We have been hearing for months now how Ron Hextall and Brian Burke want to make the Penguins bigger, tougher, more physical. The problem with acquiring those type of players is that they can take themselves out of the lineup at the wrong time because they can not control themselves. Take for example Nazem Kadri and Ryan Reaves. Kadri earned himself a sixth suspension, and third in the playoffs, for a nasty head shot on Justin Faulk. Reaves took himself out for two games for losing his mind against Colorado in Game 1 and probably should have already been suspended for sending Ryan Suter face first into the goal post.
Players are only good to you if they can keep themselves in the lineup. Teams may want players like Kadri, Reaves, or Tom Wilson because they are “tough to play against in the playoffs” but if they keep taking themselves out of the lineup because for stupid reasons, then who really cares what they do or how they play? They have to actually be there.
Even-up officiating stinks
Officiating has been a focal point for everybody this postseason, and it seems to be getting worse than it has ever been. Or maybe we are just paying more attention to it.
The rules are not called consistently.
Star players are being held back in favor of grinders that can get away with whatever they want (how is it possible that Connor McDavid has not drawn a single penalty in two years in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?).
Everything is always evened out.
When it comes to the latter point, consider this: No team has a penalty differential greater than plus-six, or worse than minus-five.
Of the 16 teams, 11 of them are within four penalties on either side of even (plus-four or minus-four).
When it comes to the head-to-head matchups in the First Round...
The Jets and Oilers: Plus-one in favor of the Oilers
The Penguins and Islanders: Plus-two in favor of the Islanders
The Capitals and Bruins: Plus-two in favor of the Capitals
The Panthers and Lightning: Even.
Only three of the eight first-round series had a penalty differential greater than plus-four in either direction (Toronto was plus-five over Montreal; Nashville was plus-six over Carolina; Vegas was plus-five over Minnesota).
There is no way penalties are that even in every game, and every series. No way. No. Freaking, Way. The officials have the mindset that they do not want to get involved in the outcome of the game so they will just “let them play.” By doing so, they are doing the very thing they are trying to avoid — having an impact in the outcome of the game.
Just call the rules. Players will adjust. Let the superstars shine and do what they do. Stop catering to the Cal Clutterbucks and fourth line grinders of the league. The game will be better because of it.
Build your team like Colorado
Seriously, just watch those guys play. Fast, skilled, and absolutely loaded from top to bottom at every possible position.
You can talk about size, or strength, or intangibles, or any other random element you want but it still comes down to superstars, depth, and skill. Load up on it at every level. It really is not more complicated than that.