The defending champions are great, but they’re vulnerable entering the Eastern Conference Final.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, defending champions of the NHL, are heading to the Eastern Conference Final. They’ll be facing the Ottawa Senators, a team that got outscored during the regular season and again in its second-round series against the New York Rangers. From a distance, you’d think this has the makings of a sweep.
And you might be right. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are historically splendid talents leading a diverse, deep forward group. Marc-Andre Fleury has rediscovered former success with his Penguins career seemingly on its last legs. This is a group that’s been there, done that.
But even after getting past the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in Game 7, the Penguins don’t look as imposing as a year ago. They still might win another Stanley Cup in the wild free-for-all that is the NHL postseason, but it’s not because they’re infallible.
Even with a relatively underwhelming opponent waiting in the conference finals, Pittsburgh should be weary of the areas where it doesn’t look like a champion. With the Penguins set to face the Senators to determine who reaches the Stanley Cup Final, here are the reasons why we shouldn’t expect a bunch of blowouts.
The Senators have the only true No. 1 defenseman
There’s at least one area where Ottawa will definitely have an advantage, and that’s because of Erik Karlsson. He’s going to be the unmatchable piece for the Penguins, who don’t have a proper No. 1 defenseman due to Kris Letang’s absence. In Game 7 against Washington, their starting pairing featured Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey.
Even with just one good foot, Karlsson has been a force this postseason. When the two-time Norris Trophy winner is on the ice in 5-on-5 situations, the Senators have outscored opponents, 14-7. When he’s off, they get outscored, 18-9. That’s an incredible 16-goal swing that shows how the Senators’ game hinges on their best player.
This is going to be a challenge for the Penguins the remainder of the postseason. They have the clear star power advantage at forward with Malkin, Crosby, Phil Kessel, and Patric Hornqvist, but they’re depending on a defensive group without an elite talent. And sans Letang, they haven’t exactly looked dominant.
The Pens’ poor possession numbers
The Penguins of the past couple years have never quite been an elite possession team like the Kings, Bruins, or Capitals. They finished No. 16 in 5-on-5 Corsi during the 2016-17 regular season, per Natural Stat Trick. During the 2016 Stanley Cup run, they posted a 51.7 percent 5-on-5 Corsi, which was right in the middle of the playoff pack.
But as you’ll notice, the Penguins were usually at least pretty good. Even if they weren’t dominating even strength possession like the best teams in that area, they usually held their own. Combined with their stellar scoring ability and strong goaltending, you had a good mix to win a lot of games.
This postseason has been different. Through two series, the Penguins have a 42 percent 5-on-5 Corsi. That’s dead last among the 16 playoff teams, even though 12 of the teams ahead of them have been eliminated. You can largely thank Fleury, and some timely shooting from Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and the stars, for that.
But this is a bad omen for Pittsburgh. Even if you buy that the Penguins don’t need to dominate possession to win, a 10 percent drop from last postseason shows this team isn’t winning the same way. It’s a lot more about shooting and save percentages than tilting the ice in their direction right now.
You don’t need to post a 60 percent Corsi in every series to win a Stanley Cup. But you generally need to do better than 42 percent, as shown by recent Cup winners and their postseason 5-on-5 Corsi numbers, via Corsica Hockey:
2015-16 Penguins: 51.7 percent
2014-15 Blackhawks: 51.2 percent
2013-14 Kings: 53.8 percent
2012-13 Blackhawks: 55.5 percent
2011-12 Kings: 51.8 percent
2010-11 Bruins: 50.3 percent
2009-10 Blackhawks: 51.4 percent
2008-09 Penguins: 48.3 percent
2007-08 Red Wings: 60.4 percent
Even the 2009 Penguins, the only team of the past 10 years to win a Cup without hitting 50 percent, still had possession numbers well above what the current edition has done. This should be considered a red flag for anyone already pegging Pittsburgh to repeat as champions.
The challenge of repeating
Putting aside how they’ve played and their upcoming opponent, the reality is that winning two Stanley Cups in a row is quite hard. No team has done it since the Red Wings in 1997-98, when the game looked a lot different than it does today. In the current era, even the best teams have taken breaks between their victorious playoff runs.
This one may be least important for actually gauging the Penguins’ ability to win another eight games, but it shows how difficult it is to win through the wear and tear of two straight NHL postseasons. That’s a lot of games combined with the regular season and international play (which many top players participate in), so you have to wonder if Pittsburgh will run out of gas at some point, especially given how it has walked the tight rope winning games despite losing the possession battle.