All things considered the Pittsburgh Penguins have plenty of reason to feel encouraged about this recent two-game road trip. They went into Colorado with a shorthanded roster and not only beat the defending Stanley Cup champions (and a team that has been white hot for a few weeks now), but significantly outplayed them.
It was an absolutely massive two points in the playoff race, especially after dropping two points against the Ottawa Senators, and a result that not many people gave them a chance to get. It was arguably the win of the year.
Then just 24 hours later they went on the road again, with the same shorthanded roster against another Stanley Cup contending team and had the upper-hand in terms of play for most of the night. They just simply did not get the result, mostly because the other team’s goalie was simply better and they again lost the special teams battle.
The talk after the game was mostly positive, and that if the Penguins can find that level of play over the remaining 10 games they will ultimately end up making the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They are currently in a playoff position by the narrowest of margins, and are set to enter one of the most stressful playoff races they have had over the past 17 years. It is mostly a three-team race, but could become a four-team race if they end up losing to the Washington Capitals on Saturday.
In general, I agree with the mindset that if the Penguins play the remaining 10 games like they did in Dallas (and Colorado) that they SHOULD win a lot of them and safely make the playoffs for a 17th consecutive season. There is a lot of reason to believe that, especially with a mostly favorable remaining schedule in terms of opponent quality.
The problem, though, is a 10-game sample size is a small sample size and a lot of random, weird things can happen in a small sample size.
The other problem is the Penguins mostly HAVE been playing like they did in Dallas for the entirety of the second half of the season (minus a couple of notable exceptions) and are not consistently getting the results.
Since the All-Star break the Penguins rank first in the NHL in 5-on-5 shot attempts per 60 minutes, first in 5-on-5 expected goals per 60 minutes (by a MASSIVE margin), and fifth in expected goal share per 60 minutes.
Their lead in expected goals per 60 minutes over the next closest team (3.52 to 3.32) is the same as the gap from the No. 2 team to the No. 8 team in the league during that stretch (Carolina to Edmonton).
Nobody has been better at generating chances and outchancing their opponents.
In their 23 games since the All-Star break the Penguins have only had six games where their expected goal share during 5-on-5 play was lower than 50 percent. They have had 13 out of those 23 games where their expected goal share was over 54 percent, including Thursday’s game in Dallas.
Their record in those games is 6-7-0.
They have lost games during that stretch to teams they are competing with for playoff spots (New York Islanders).
They have lost games to Stanley Cup contenders (New York Rangers, Dallas Stars).
They have lost to bad teams they have outplayed and should have beaten (Montreal, Ottawa).
The process is mostly there. The results are not. The results have not been there because they have done an abnormally bad job converting those chances into actual goals (despite being first in shot attempt rate and expected goal rate they are in the 20s when it comes to actual goal scoring rate), they are not getting consistent goaltending, and their special teams have been brutal.
All of that played out on Thursday. They got out goalie’d. They did not bury several odd-man rushes and prime, grade-A chances. They lost the special teams battle 1-0 in a game they lost by one goal.
Really, that is where a lot of the flaws come from. Not converting chances into goals speaks too the lack of talent on the third-and fourth-lines. They do not score goals. The goaltending inconsistency comes from the fact that the starter is never healthy and has struggled when not 100 percent, while the backup struggles more the more often he has to play. The PK issue comes from the fact the defense has been crushed by injuries and the bottom-six forwards (who play a lot of PK duty) are, again, not particularly good or skilled.
Whenever I post the Penguins expected goal numbers or talk about how much they have outplayed teams during 5-on-5 play I always get some pushback about how that is how things have been for years, and maybe it is a sign they are not actually outplaying teams and the numbers are misleading.
But I am not sure that is entirely fair. The past couple of regular seasons have seen the Penguins win a lot of hockey games. They were a 103-point team a year ago. They won a division and played at a 112-point pace the year before that. They played at a 102-point pace the year before that.
We are simply remembering what happened in the playoffs as the overriding, defining parts of those teams. Which, I get. Teams are measured by what they do in the playoffs. But it is also fair to point out they did legitimately run into elite goaltending in the past two playoffs (Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin are quite literally as good as it gets in the NHL, and getting them in back-to-back first rounds is massive stroke of bad luck). while also having substantial goaltending issues of their own. Goaltending is a big part of the game unless you do not have it. Then it becomes the entire game. That is not even getting into the fact that in the year prior to that they ran into a healthy Carey Price in a best-of-five game series.
So I do not think it is fair to point out or argue that maybe the numbers are misleading or the Penguins are not playing as well as they suggest. The numbers are what they are. It is the process behind the way they are playing. Until they ran into all-world goalies (and lost their own goalies) that process was producing results. Very strong results.
This year is the first time that it has not produced positive results over the course of an 82-game regular season. It is simply the result of the team’s roster flaws in some big areas that are getting exposed and magnified, combined with some awful injury luck to many of the team’s top defensemen at the absolute wrong time of the season.
They need to keep going forward with the same process they have showed and demonstrated over the past two months. Yes that should produce wins if they can do that, especially given their schedule and against some of the teams they will be playing. That also should have already been happening. It has not been. They have 10 games for them to either figure it out or for their luck to significantly change in a meaningful way.