As soon as Chris Kunitz fired a shot past a screened Craig Anderson in double overtime, the hockey media world began working up narratives for the Stanley Cup Finals. Immediately, headlines began popping up: can the Nashville Predators keep up with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ forwards?
Depth Upon Depth Upon Depth
Looking up and down the Penguins’ forwards, yes, it is a concern for the Predators. The Penguins boast far and away the most forward depth of any team the Predators have yet to play these playoffs. While the Blackhawks had both the Toews and Kane lines, Pittsburgh has three dangerous lines that can and will score goals.
Line 1? Wilson-Malkin-Kessel*
Line 2? Kunitz-Crosby-Sheary
Line 3? Hagelin-Bonino-Rowney
The asterisk by Kessel is because he may even be bounced from the top line at the start of the playoffs, as former Predator Patric Hornqvist resumed practicing today for the Penguins. If he returns, the Penguins can reunite the now-famous “HBK” line of Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel that ran wild in last year’s cup run, although Bryan Rust also should be somewhere in that top nine.
Nevertheless, they are also dealing with some injuries at forwards. Right wing Tom Kuhnhackl of Landshut is still nursing a lower body injury. He worked out before the optional on-ice practice for the Penguins Friday, but he is still likely a scratch for at least game one.
Because of the injuries to Kuhnhackl and Hornqvist, along with those on defense, head coach Mike Sullivan opted to only ice eleven forwards and bring along a seventh defenseman a handful of times against the Ottawa Senators. However, the fact that Sullivan was confident only having eleven forwards in the Eastern Conference Finals shows how much trust he trusts the depth of his elite forward core.
However, there are arguments that the depth carried by the Penguins is over-performing. For instance, Jake Guentzel has received a lot of press for his phenomenal playoffs, having scored nine goals already. However, he’s riding at a 23.7 shooting percentage that is in no way sustainable. Furthermore, Bryan Rust and his six goals are coming from a 17.1 shooting percentage. With all due respect to Guentzel and Rust, unless your name is Leon Draisaitl, those numbers simply are unsustainable. Just ask the Blue Jackets and their 16-game winning streak, during which they had similar numbers as a collective team.
The Usual Culprits
To nobody’s surprise, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have lead the Penguins all season long and are the key driving forces in getting the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals.
While Crosby lead the Penguins in both goals and assists during the regular season, finishing with 44 goals and 45 assists for 89 points, Evgeni Malkin has been the top scorer in the playoffs. However, Malkin has been extremely streaky. He managed eleven of his 24 points in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets and has since considerably cooled off. However, he broke out for another three points, all on the powerplay, in a 7-0 blowout of the Ottawa Senators in game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Preventing Malkin from feeling comfortable is going to be monumental if the Predators want to win this series.
Furthermore, one can’t just talk about Malkin. Legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson once said that true superstars make those around them better. Sidney Crosby exemplifies this trait better than any other player in hockey. From James Neal to Kunitz to Sheary, Crosby has elevated the play of his linemates. Heck, basically the only reason Kunitz made the 2014 Team Canada Olympic roster was because of his chemistry with Crosby.
Looking at the above graph, it may be difficult to see where Sidney Crosby’s #87 is when boxed in red, but if you’re looking for how well the Penguins play with Crosby in the lineup, he’s the blue box farthest right. The Penguins are exponentially better with Sidney Crosby in the lineup than without him and there is no reason to believe that he will be anything less than a handful for the Predators.
The Danger Zone
While the Penguins are not a good corsi team, managing a less than pedestrian 46.47 corsi for percent these playoffs, they make the most of the chances that they do receive at even strength. They’ve created 158 high danger scoring chances these playoffs, good for second in the playoffs behind the Anaheim Ducks. How they manage it despite being bad in possession? Driving to the net.
This diagram from the double overtime marathon that was game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals shows two key features of the Penguins offense. First, it doesn’t run through their defense. There are not many point shots taken and even fewer by their defensemen. Even the cluster by the right side of their blue line is dominated by Kunitz, Hagelin, and Kessel. The forwards will shoot from anywhere and, for the most part, the defense does not get involved.
Second, this team loves the slot. They dig in and drive there every opportunity that is presented, even if the chances of scoring may not be quite there. Sidney Crosby has been sitting backdoor every chance he gets, slamming home any puck that comes his way. Nearly any time the Penguins get to the slot, they’re going to rip a shot at the goaltender.
They don’t hesitate and, despite having a team with Malkin and Crosby, the goals don’t need to be pretty. While the skill is certainly there, once the Penguins reach the slot, expect a shot on goal. If Patric Hornqvist returns to the lineup this series, their effectiveness in the slot is only going to get better.