Metropolitan Division Season Preview: The Pittsburgh Penguins

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Overview: Much like the Capitals, the Penguins went through as much of a makeover as a team can without completely shaking up its core. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc Andre-Fleury and Kris Letang are back, as are Chris Kunitz, Paul Martin and a few other familiar faces. Otherwise the 2014-2015 Pens will have a new look. We take a closer look at the 2014-2015 team below.

How They Did Last Season:

  • 51-24-7 (109 points), Finished 1st in Metropolitan Division
  • Lost in Conference Semi-Finals to New York Rangers in Seven Games

The Penguins were a fascinating team last year. In many ways it’s incredible that they were able to finish anywhere close to where they did, considering they led the league by a mile in man-games lost to injury, many of those to key players. Malkin, Martin and Letang all missed significant time, Pascal Dupuis suffered a season-ending ACL injury and that’s just the beginning of the list.

There were stretches in which a majority of the Pens’ defense was comprised of AHL callups, and they didn’t suffer a drop in the standings. After the first quarter of the season, their on-ice play began to suffer. It may not have shown up in the standings but their possession numbers suffered tremendously as their two best puck-moving defensemen in Martin and Letang missed large chunks of games simultaneously.

Breakout performances from rookie Olli Maatta and defensive partner Matt Niskanen helped pick up the slack, but the team’s underlying numbers even heading into the playoffs were troubling. However, the best player in the world can cover up a lot of warts.

Sidney Crosby proved yet again that he is a generation talent, securing the Hart Trophy in a race that wasn’t even close. His 104 points were tops in the league with Ryan Getzlaf coming in second with 87 points. Linemate Chris Kunitz enjoyed another stellar season on his wing with 35 goals and 68 points. With Malkin and James Neal anchoring the second line, at least when healthy, scoring on the top two lines wasn’t a problem in the regular season. They seemed balanced, with the 10th best goals against average and fifth best goals-for average.

Then the playoffs happened and everything went haywire. They managed to fight off the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets in a tough six-game series. Many experts thought the series was going to be a route, but the Penguins beat them only with great difficulty before blowing a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers in the second round.

Games 5-7 of the Rangers series changed the trajectory of the franchise. The Pens managed just three goals in those three games, culminating in a 2-1 game seven loss at home. In the end, Crosby scored just one goal in 13 playoff games while Neal, Crosby and Kunitz combined for just three goals combined in the Rangers series. Later it was revealed that Crosby was dealing with a crippling wrist injury. His possession numbers were still fine, but he was nowhere near the dominant force he was in the regular season.

The irony is that the Pens won the possession stats battle against the Rangers. They had the second-highest shots-for average of any playoff team, and the third lowest shots-against and certainly had the better of the corsi/fenwick in that series. They pounded Henrik Lundquist with shots. But when it came to crunch time, much like many of the Caps’ teams of recent years, they couldn’t finish.

That series may be the best example of why advanced possession stats, at least the ones at the disposal of the common fan, don’t always tell the full story. Sure the Pens had a shot volume advantage but they also fell behind 2-0 in the first period in games 1, 5 and 6. Many of those shots were outside the “home plate” area where quality chances are generated. Flinging pucks from the outside at a great goalie without any traffic in front doesn’t cut it. Neither does going 1-for-20 on the power play to finish the playoffs.

If they had converted more of their chances, and if Crosby had been healthy, who knows what may have happened? Perhaps Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero would still be running the team.

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