Under the Microscope: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

We kick off the second round of our look back at the playoffs by diving into the exciting six-game series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. This matchup had the hype to be a Conference Final, with both teams being popular picks to win it all and the quality of play didn’t disappoint, at least from an entertainment perspective. All but one game was decided by one goal with Pittsburgh winning two games in overtime, including the series-clincher in Game 6.

It’s hard to say how this series went relative to expectations because opinions on it were pretty split. Washington ran away with the Presidents Trophy during the regular season, but the Penguins were the hottest team in the NHL heading into the playoffs and made quick work of the New York Rangers in the first round. Pittsburgh also posted better territorial numbers than Washington during the regular season, ranking fourth in the NHL in Score Adjusted Fenwick, so it’s easy to see why some people leaned towards Pittsburgh this series. Those people ended up making the right choice, as the Penguins took this series in six games and appeared to have control of this series, at least just going by the results.

Yes, the Pens had a 3-1 series lead but it didn’t come easy, as one of the wins came in overtime and another one came on the back of a 47-save performance by goaltender Matt Murray. It’s not too surprising because in a matchup like this, you’re going to need a couple of games like that to go your way and the Penguins are no different. After the jump, we’ll take a closer look at all the factors that went into their series win over the Caps.

5v5 Shots

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You need every advantage you can get in a series like this, so it’s a little surprising to see Washington have the lead in virtually every category considering they lost by such a small margin. The easy explanation for this is that Pittsburgh had more bounces & got better goaltending and that was enough for them to win the series. While that is true to an extent, the overall numbers need some context. Washington ended up with the advantage in every statistic pretty much only because of what happened in Game 3, which Pittsburgh won 3-2.

The Penguins were playing with a lead for the majority of this game and Washington came after them with everything in their arsenal, outshooting them 64-28 at five-on-five and outchancing them 25-8. It took 47 saves from Matt Murray (and a few goalposts) for the Penguins to win this game and it was easily their worst performance of the playoffs up to that point. If we throw that game out, Pittsburgh has a pretty sizeable advantage in just about every category. Unfortunately, we can’t do that because the game still happened and Murray ended up playing a big part in the Penguins winning this series in six games.

However, outside of that game, Pittsburgh had the territorial advantage. The deficit of Game 3 was just so large that it had a pretty big impact on the overall numbers. Not to take anything away from Washington because they easily could have won that game and, as noted in the overall numbers, were pretty creative with the puck in the offensive zone. They did a very good job at moving the puck around in the offensive zone and forcing Murray to move laterally to make saves. They also created more plays in transition than the Penguins, which was a bit surprising to me because that is something Pittsburgh seemed to do very well this series.

That said, the Penguins had an answer for most of what Washington was trying to do and capitalized on more of their chances. It’s interesting to see how identical these two teams are in regards to how they created their offense. In my previous series breakdowns, there’s usually one team creating significantly more shots off faceoffs or turnovers. This time, both teams created a similar percentage of their shots the same way. Pittsburgh was a little more reliant on carry-ins than Washington, but not significantly so. Goes to show how tight of a matchup this was.

5v5 Zone Entries             

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Something that was apparent when watching this series was that Pittsburgh had control of the neutral zone and the numbers bear that out to an extent. Washington had more overall entries, which might be why they had a slight territorial advantage, but Pittsburgh was able to carry the puck over the line at a much higher rate. They were also generating more shots off their entries than Washington regardless of how they got the puck into the zone, and at a much higher rate than they were in their series against the Rangers.

Pittsburgh’s success in the neutral zone also extends to the defensive side, as they forced the Caps to dump the puck in on nearly 55% of their entries. Washington didn’t rely that heavily on carrying the puck in to create their offense against the Flyers, but they are generally a team that prefers to carry the puck in and being held to a 45.7% Carry-in rate is something that’s probably outside of their comfort zone. You can also see that Washington did pretty well when they could carry the puck in that their shot rate plummeted when they had to chip-and-chase. The one saving grace is that they had the puck more in general & more overall entries, so they could catch up to Pittsburgh in terms of shot volume that way.

The Penguins have made a habit out of picking teams apart in the neutral zone throughout the playoffs and it’s something that’s been a constant since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach. This series in particular was a good test for them because Washington, and Barry Trotz coached teams, are very strong when defending their own blue line and do not surrender controlled entries that easily. Pittsburgh made them look silly and clearly got the better end of this matchup, but what were they doing that made their attack so effective?

Penguins 5v5 Zone Entries

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Pittsburgh’s forwards carried most of the burden in the neutral zone, figuratively and literally. The forwards did most of the work and all but three were able to carry the puck in on more than half of their entries, most of them exceeding the 60% mark. Compare this to their performance against the Rangers and you’ll notice a few differences, the biggest one being the spread of the forwards. Everyone is much closer together in terms of the role they had in the neutral zone (Entries/60) with Bonino, Cullen & Fehr getting more involved in this regard. Cullen & Bonino also carried the puck in at a much higher rate this series, adding another dimension to their respective lines. Having all twelve forwards this involved in the neutral zone also gave the Pens some real balance in their lines.

The other change from the Rangers series is Kris Letang becoming more involved in the attack. Pittsburgh’s defense didn’t have that big of a role in joining the attack and carrying the puck through the neutral zone but when they did join the rush, Letang was their main option. He carried the puck in at a rate you usually see from a high-skilled forward and seemed to pick his spots well here. Trevor Daley and Ian Cole had minor roles here, too but Letang was clearly on another level.

Another interesting observation here is that if the Penguins top-six dumped the puck in, it was usually one of the two right wingers doing it (Fehr & Hornqvist). It was hard to tell if this was a planned strategy or just the situations they were dealt. Hornqvist isn’t the type of player who handles the puck in the neutral zone and Fehr was on the fourth line for a couple of games while his replacement, Bryan Rust, had way more success in this regard. Aside from those two, Sullivan wanted his forwards to skate with the puck through the neutral zone and it looks like they got the message. From the top liners like Crosby to the lower line players like Cullen.

Doing this to a team like Washington isn’t easy, so I wanted to look more into their neutral zone play and what exactly they did to pick apart Washington’s defense. First thing I looked at was if there was a specific defenseman Pittsburgh was targeting when they entered the zone.

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It’s tough to determine if Pittsburgh was “targeting” anyone in particular because they entered the zone pretty equally against Washington defensemen. What you can say from looking at this chart is that the Pens had a pretty easy time carrying the puck into the zone regardless of who was defending the blue line. The only players who had success challenging entries were Karl Alzner & John Carlson, the latter of whom was Washington’s best defenseman this series for my money. Pittsburgh also had a lot of fun entering the zone against Brooks Oprik and Dmitry Orlov, generating almost one shot per entry against them.

When it comes to certain players, however, there are some matchups we can point out.

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This graph shows how many times each Penguins player entered the zone against a certain Capitals defenseman. You can see that the Crosby line picked on Matt Niskanen when they entered the zone while Malkin’s line attached Carlson’s side of the ice more often than Orpik. The Bonino line saw a little of everyone, possibly due to getting the “leftovers” of the matchup game, with Hagelin targeting Niskanen on most of his entries. Niskanen & Carlson getting the majority of the targets is a little interesting because as much as they struggled to prevent carry-ins, the Penguins were getting less shots against them than they were against the rest of Washington’s defense.  It’s also strange that none of these defensemen could fend off Pittsburgh’s attack but reviewing the game tape reveals a few things about both team’s strategies.

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This is from Game 1, so both teams are still getting a feel for each other and are likely sticking with their original game plan. Here we see the Penguins moving the puck up the ice with the Caps having decent numbers back. Trevor Daley currently has the puck on the left wing and is attempting to make a cross-ice pass to Evgeni Malkin. Challenging Malkin at the line is John Carlson, one of his favorite targets throughout the series.

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Carlson makes an aggressive play at the blue line and tries to check Malkin off the puck and negate the zone entry. Kind of a risky strategy against a line like this, but good on the Caps for not sitting back in the neutral zone because giving a player like Malkin more time and space is probably the last thing you want to do. He also probably has more leeway to make a play like this because the Caps have five guys in the picture while the Penguins have three players attacking the line, one of them being a defenseman coming down the right wing.

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Malkin beats Carlson cleanly at the line and has a clear lane to the net with the other defenseman back being Brooks Orpik. Now, this isn’t that bad for the Caps because four guys are back to cover up for Carlson, but Malkin probably can out-skate him to the goal. He also has a passing option with Trevor Daley coming down the right wing and no one on the Caps looking at him.

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Malkin goes for the pass and Daley is wide open in the slot. Unfortunately, the pass just missed Daley but had it not, this would have been a goal or at the very least, a tough save for goaltender Brayden Holtby to make. Now, this example was more of a freak play than anything because the Caps didn’t necessarily do anything “wrong” and Malkin just made a great play at the blue line to give the Penguins a spark. It did, however, show that the Caps were aggressive in defending their blue line at the beginning and the Penguins were up to that challenge.

The Penguins actual game plan for getting through the neutral zone was actually more about puck support and going up the ice as a group.

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Here we see Malkin skating up the right wing and the Penguins have favorable numbers exiting the zone because the Caps have three forwards caught deep. The Caps have two defensemen back (Carlson & Orpik again) and they are trying to keep a good gap on the oncoming Penguins forwards.

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Orpik maintains a tight gap on Malkin and blocks off his path into the zone. At the same time, Malkin is making a sharp cut to the middle of the ice while the other Penguins forward (Kunitz) is skating in his direction. They also have two other players coming on the left side of the ice, so Malkin has plenty of option if he hangs on for a couple of seconds.

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The pick by Kunitz backs off the defense and Malkin’s able to enter the zone with two different passing options and a huge cushion to work with. This was made easier by the Caps having three forwards caught deep, but the MO was basically the same for the Penguins whenever they rushed the puck up the ice. They made sure the player crossing the line had a passing option (unless he was alone on a stretch pass) so that they had a better chance of creating a shot or a decent chance instead of having them dissolve before they get to the faceoff circle. This is part of the reason why almost all of their forwards posted strong Carry-in rates. The forward supported each other in the defensive and neutral zones so well that it was easier for them to carry the puck in at a high rate. This entry by the Crosby line being a good example.

CROSBY ENTRY

Here we see Crosby entering the zone against Matt Niskanen and he has a couple of passing options in Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist. The Caps defense, once again, have a tight gap at the blue line and a forward back in Jay Beagle to disrupt the Penguins entry. Pittsburgh still managed to enter the zone cleanly despite this and the rest of the series played out in a similar fashion. The Caps defense didn’t back off, Pittsburgh just knew how to counter this.

Capitals 5v5 Zone Entries

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Compared to Pittsburgh, Washington’s entries are a little more top-heavy with their top-six doing most of the puck-handling and their bottom-six playing a lot of dump-and-chase. Their bottom-six also had a pretty small role in the neutral zone with the exception of Dan Winnik & Tom Wilson, who pretty much never carried the puck in and dragged down the team average. Andre Burakovsky also gave the Caps bottom-six a nice jolt here, though and Richards’ line saw their play improve while he was on it.

The spread might be a little top-heavy, but the top of Washington’s roster is among the most dangerous in the league and every player in this group was dynamic in the neutral zone. The Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie line was especially good at this and it’s not surprising that they led the Caps in shot differential, too. Oshie was forced to dump the puck in a lot in the Flyers series, but he had the puck on his stick a lot more against Pittsburgh and this line gave the Penguins defense a lot of problems. The Kuznetsov-Williams duo also posted very strong numbers in the neutral zone, Kuznetsov’s being the best on the team, but they didn’t see much of a reward for their efforts unfortunately. Williams had a couple of big goals but Kuznetsov was quiet on the scoresheet despite playing well in just about every other area.

The Caps defense was also a little more involved in the rush than Pittsburgh’s, although they didn’t have anyone who could match what Letang did. Still, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt had the puck on their sticks in the neutral zone a fair bit and did an okay job at carrying the puck in when called upon. Both of them were also scratched for a couple of games, unfortunately. Carlson was also very active in the neutral zone, although the numbers don’t bear it out. He didn’t carry the puck in at a high rate, but he was joining the play a fair amount and acted as a fourth attacker on many of the Caps rushes, especially when they were trailing.

Now, let’s look at if the Caps were targeting any defensemen in particular when entering the zone.

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Maatta’s numbers are inflated a bit from not playing much, so I wouldn’t put much thought into them. Letang, on the other hand, played a lot of minutes and received most of the attention from the Caps forwards. Part of that is from him playing so much and being rotated with every defense partner imaginable, but the Caps seemed to put extra focus on attacking his side of the ice instead of his partner’s. It’s kind of an odd strategy even if you don’t think Letang is the most threatening defenseman on the planet. He’s still one of the best in the league and most of the Caps offense died when they entered the zone against him. Being a good skater goes a long way and Letang seemed to use this to his advantage when defending one-on-one.

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Here we see the Caps breaking the puck out of their own zone with Oshie making a cross-ice pass to Ovechkin. Like the Caps did in the earlier screengrab breakdown, Pittsburgh has two defensemen back (Letang & Daley) and both are keeping a decent gap on the Caps forwards.

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Ovechkin receives the pass cleanly, cuts to the outside and manages to get a step on Letang. He also has support coming with Nate Schmidt in the center of the ice and the Caps have even numbers entering the zone. It’s not the best situation, but Ovechkin has the skill to turn this into a pretty dangerous rush if he get around Letang.

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Ovechkin gets into the zone, but Letang is able to catchup to him, poke the puck off his stick and the Caps rush ends up being pretty harmless. Goes to show how valuable Letang was this series, both with and without the puck.

Penguins 5v5 Shots & Passes

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Like I said in the Dallas-Minnesota recap, when a player breaks the scale on your graph, you know he had a good series. That might be underselling what Malkin did against Washington. His line with Kunitz and Fehr/Rust had a monstrous series in terms of shot differential and a lot of it was Malkin carrying them on his back. He wasn’t that active as a shooter, but as a passer, no one in the playoffs has outperformed what he did this series. Whether it was Rust, Kunitz, Fehr, a defenseman or the rare shift he got with Kessel, Malkin found anyone who was relatively open and was responsible for over 53% of the shot attempts he was on the ice for. It’s obscene for a forward with his minutes to post those kinds of numbers in a six game series and he could have easily posted a ridiculous scoring line if his linemates finished at a higher rate. That’s more of a testament to his play because he directly setup a high number of shots.

Getting a gauge on anyone else through this graph is difficult because Malkin’s numbers throw everything out of whack, but it’s fairly easy to see that Hagelin & Kessel were the team’s most effective forwards at generating shots at five-on-five with Bonino doing most of the work in getting them the puck. Crosby & Sheary also posted strong numbers here, mostly setting up Hornqvist for shots. Granted, Crosby’s numbers are kind of “low” for his standards. Part of that is due to Malkin going off and making everyone else look inferior.

On defense, no one in particular stoodout as a passer and Dumoulin ended up setting up the most shots relative to his ice time, which was a little surprising since you would expect Letang to run away with this category. Letang did play a big role in the offense, but as a shooter. Pittsburgh’s forwards did such a good job at moving the puck around and creating space that the defense ended up getting plenty of looks from the point or on the rush, which is why no one here stood out as a passer.

Capitals 5v5 Shots & Passes

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Washington’s shot contribution spread is similar to their zone entries in the sense that the top-six did basically all of the heavy lifting. Ovechkin, Burakovsky, Johansson and Backstrom were dual threats as shooters & passers with the first two having a huge lead on the rest of the team in this regard. Kuznetsov & Backstrom shined as passers and it’s a shame that the former didn’t see any reward for his efforts because he looked like he could have been a difference maker out there if he (or his linemates) had more finish. The same can be said for Burakovsky, who was effective at creating offense but had only one goal all playoffs. Both players probably deserved better results than what they got.

With Kuznetsov & Burakovsky in scoring ruts, the first line had to carry most of Washington’s offense and that ended up being kind of a drag. Burakovsky and Johansson had to do the bulk of the work on the third line (depending who was on it) and neither Jason Chimera nor Mike Richards did much in terms of producing offense. Things didn’t get much better when they swapped Richards for Beagle. They didn’t get anything from their fourth line either, so the Caps leaned on their first line pretty heavily. Not that Kuznetsov’s line was worthless, they were actually quite the opposite, the pucks just weren’t going in for them and that usually hurts you in a short series.

Speaking of goal-scoring, Carlson was easily the Caps most productive defenseman all playoffs and he finds himself in a good place on this graph. He’s outperformed by Nate Schmidt in terms of producing shots and Matt Niskanen in terms of passes, but he was very effective as an offensive defenseman for Washington. He is generally the Caps go-to option for offense (i.e. shots) from the blue line and this series was no different.  Him and Schmidt actually made a pretty decent pairing for the Caps while Orpik was serving his suspension and it’s too bad Schmidt got benched for his turnover in Game 3 (which directly led to a Penguins goal, to be fair), because he brought some creativity to the Caps blue line when he did get to play. It was one of the Caps weaknesses when he was out of the lineup, especially on the left side of their defense.

The Final Word                                                           

Pittsburgh earned this win. They needed Murray to steal a game for them and the Caps were on the wrong side of variance in a few ways, but Pittsburgh played well enough to take this series. They got the better of their defense in the neutral zone and outplayed them in the majority of the games. It’s frustrating for Washington to lose another close series like this, but there’s not much you can do when you run into a better team. Things might have swung in their favor if Murray didn’t have the game of his life in Game 3, but they had a chance to get back in the series after that and it didn’t happen. Those are the breaks sometimes.

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8 thoughts on “Under the Microscope: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

  1. This was a really insightful and, overall, a very interesting article. I really enjoy your Under the Microscope series a lot, keep them coming. Side note: I really believed Malkin played amazing almost all throughout the playoffs. Also, although this was a small sample size, this series shows how Malkin likely would have benefited from having better linemates.

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  2. Great article! Although this is a small sample size, this series really displays how much Malkin would benefit from more skillful teammates, opposed to rookies and 4th liners. I really hope JR can some how get a decent winger in a trade for Malkin this season.

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