The Penguins are up 3 games to 1 on the New York Rangers after the first four games of their opening round Stanley Cup playoff series.
Depending on which school of thought you came into the playoffs with, this is either a stunning development or not much of a surprise.
Most all of the humans (this one included) aside from perhaps wishful thinking Penguin fans had picked the Rangers to win the series. NYR looked better down the stretch and dominated Pittsburgh in the regular season, only allowing Pittsburgh one even strength goal in four matchups. The Pens were beat up and not playing their best hockey in the final few weeks of the season.
Almost all of the advanced stat models favored the Pens, because even though the Rangers were improved by trade deadline acquisitions, Pittsburgh was a superior team at 5v5 and generating scoring chances.
So far, the analytical outlook has come to pass. The Pens have generated a playoff-leading 20.6 expected goals in the four games (plus a triple overtime added in there). NYR all-world goalie Igor Shesterkin has been absolutely shelled and has not been able to hold up the fort.
It’s practically unfathomable that the goalie who only gave up four total goals in four regular season games against the Pens (3-1-0 record, .960 save%, 1 shutout) would give up 16 goals in the first four games and get pulled in two straight games. These results are not really Shesterkin’s fault, even though he’s been shaky at times. Pittsburgh has flung 17.2 expected goals at Shesterkin, he’s given up 16. As crazy as it is to think, this series could be even more lopsided if the Rangers didn’t have a quality goaltender to drag Game 1 to triple OT or put them in position to win Game 2.
A leading reason why Pittsburgh has a lead is the Penguins’ top line. Jake Guentzel has five goals in the first four games, and has found the back of the net in each and every game. Sidney Crosby has nine points, which includes a multi-point game in all four games of the series. Bryan Rust has been a somewhat forgotten player but still has five points (one goal, four assists) so far.
Just to make you think about those incredible feats a little further, let’s repeat: Guentzel has a goal every game, Crosby has at least two points every game this series. That’s the type of production that needs to be celebrated, especially after all the unnecessary slings and arrows those two players took the past few playoffs.
These three are absolutely setting the tone and tilting the ice. Seemingly every shift they are generating scoring chances and great shots, if not putting the puck in the net. Their six combined 5v5 goals lead the league from one line. They’re also the most dominant line in the playoffs so far — and by a country mile. From moneypuck:
What really stands out is that many of those lines in the top-10 so far (like Minnesota’s famed checking line or the Pens’ fourth line or Washington’s fourth line) are doing so with tight checking and low xGA. Pittsburgh’s top line is just pure offense, generating twice as much xGF as Connor McDavid’s line and Nathan MacKinnon’s line. The sheer brilliance of the offense performance that Crosby (and Guentzel, and Rust) are putting out there right now is totally peerless so far.
Carrying the play has been a key for Pittsburgh. They’re down to third string goalie Louis Domingue. Domingue has done an admirable job to keep the train on tracks, but the key to protecting a reserve goalie unexpectedly thrust into the games is to limit what he sees.
The coach was effusive with his praise for his captain after the game.
“He’s playing really well for us,” Mike Sullivan said after Game 4. “You know, he’s played some real good hockey in the playoffs in my time here, so that bar is really high. I will say he’s playing a real complete game, both sides of the puck. He’s playing an inspired game I think he’s inspires the group just through his actions when he’s on his game the way he’ is right now.”
Sullivan is 100% correct. And while early in the series Crosby was gutting out some real character performances for himself and the team, in Game 4 the proverbial dam broke and the Pens just decided to run the Rangers out of the building.
There was nothing New York could do to stop it, because they don’t have any way to slow No. 87.