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Predators vs. Penguins Preview: A Look At Pittsburgh’s Defense and Goaltending

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Lose your top defenseman? Roll out your backup goaltender? Not a problem for these Eastern Conference champs.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Ottawa Senators at Pittsburgh Penguins Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports

If you thought the Nashville Predators had a “next man up” mentality in these playoffs, take a look at the current Pittsburgh Penguins defensive roster. They practically invented the phrase.

After losing Kris Letang to a neck injury in early April, the Penguins needed the rest of their defensive core to step up in a big way. Letang averaged nearly 29 minutes per game in the playoffs last year and had 15 points in 23 games. It was a loss that most teams would not be able to recover from.

But most teams aren’t the Penguins.

Enter a group of defenders as unlikely to contribute in the playoffs as you could imagine. 35-year-old Ron Hainsey, who had yet to play in a playoff game in his 14 year career. Oilers castoff Justin Schultz, desperate to prove himself. Injury prone Olli Maatta. They still had Brian Dumoulin and Ian Cole, but could those two carry the load to recover for the loss of Letang?

Considering the pieces and considering the circumstances, the Penguins blue-line has played decently. It doesn’t hurt that the duo of Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray combined for a .929 save percentage and three shutouts through 19 playoff games.

However, when you really examine this group of blueliners, you have to think this is an area of the Penguins that the Predators can exploit.

Hainsey & Dumoulin: The Best Pair?

From Bobby’s article yesterday, we already know that the Penguins have not been a model team when it comes to shot attempt stats in this postseason. In fact, they’ve been one of the worst possession teams of the postseason, clocking in at a 46.5% shot attempt for percentage, right behind St. Louis.

As you’d expect, that trend extends to the defensemen. Both Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey have been two of the worst puck possession defenders on the team, both allowing well over 320 shot attempts in 19 games, while only helping generate around 250. Olli Maata and Trevor Daley have been a little bit better, but not much.

When you look at defenders in the playoffs with at least 150 minutes at 5v5, several Penguins are among the worst when it comes to shot attempt differential.

From NaturalStatTrick.com

The fact that there are four other players on that list that the Predators were able to over-match with speed makes one hopeful. In the 2nd round, the Preds dominated Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo, while Vatanen had a rough series in the Western Conference Final. Colton Parayko was the Blues best defender, but the Preds still found a way.

It shouldn’t be surprising to see Hainsey on this list. He has a career Corsi Rel of -2.4 and that’s mostly playing on bad Thrashers and Hurricanes teams. Dumoulin is still relatively young and still learning how to be a shutdown defender in the league. His high danger stats suggest he’s not even the best shutdown defender on the team right now, though he has had the most defensive zone starts of anyone on the team.

Looking further, his 5v5 rates suggest that the team improves offensively when Dumoulin is off the ice (courtesy of HockeyViz.com)

Honestly, and this isn’t meant to be a slight, but I’m really not sure what Brian Dumoulin is particularly good at. He’s 6’4” and 210? Everything suggests he shouldn’t be getting almost 22 minutes per night in the playoffs.

Daley & Maatta: The Better Pair

Trevor Daley has been a nice asset in the playoffs for the Penguins. His 56.1 shot attempts per sixty minutes leads the blueline. As does his .81 high danger goals allowed per sixty minutes. He did miss some time with an injury earlier in the playoffs, but still gets nearly two minutes less per night than Dumoulin and Hainsey. Curious.

Olli Maatta is probably the most well-rounded defensemen of the bunch, packing a nice defensive game with some solid offensive instincts. I’d say he is the most likely to contribute on the scoreboard (maybe Schultz as well) if he can stay healthy. He leads the blueline with seven points, including two goals, one of which was a game winner.

I’ll make this prediction: by the end of the series, Maatta and Daley will be the de facto top pairing for Pittsburgh. Especially if the Predators can dictate the pace as much as possible. The Penguins will need to have puck moving defensemen if they want to get the puck out of the zone against the Preds forecheck. Mike Sullivan may have to play this pairing more if they are more effective than Dumoulin and Hainsey.

Schultz & Cole: Special Teamers

If Justin Schultz can remain healthy, he will be among the better offensive defensemen for the Penguins. In the regular season, he led the Penguins blueline in points with 51, including 12 goals. He was particularly useful on the Penguins vaunted power play, where he had 20 points. He does most of his work where you would expect, at the top of the point.

So far in the playoffs, Schultz already has six points on the power play, including two goals. It helps when you have guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel putting pucks on the net, but Schultz has been a huge part of that unit.

Ian Cole has been much improved since last season and contributes nicely on the penalty kill, where he usually pairs with Dumoulin. The former Blues first round draft pick has found a role on this team as a defensively reliable balance to Schultz’s offensive skills. Like many others in this group, he benefited from the loss of Letang, playing almost three minutes more per game in the playoffs this year than last year.

Goaltending Duo

Everyone of these blueliners has benefitted from the play of both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray.

With Fleury carrying the team through the first two rounds and then three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, Murray came on strong in the last four games against the Senators.

Getting a real answer out of “who would you rather have in net, MAF or Murray?” from a Penguins fan can be tricky. I think the joke goes like this: most Penguins fans would rather lose the Cup with Fleury than win one with Murray. Since Stanley Cups are, you know, the whole point of this, and since Murray already helped win one last year, that’s hard to believe, but the fandom that surrounds Fleury is undeniable.

Take for example this gem from a recent article over at Fansided:

Nothing against Murray here. He is an amazing goalie and he will bring us success. But credit should be given where it is due. And after an amazing performance this far by Fleury, he deserves praise. He doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by Matt Murray once again.

For those keeping score: Murray went 3-1 in four games against the Senators with a 94.5% save percentage and sent the Penguins to the Cup Finals for the second straight year.

To the author’s credit, Fleury was great in the first two rounds. With Murray out with an injury, Fleury helped stop two great offenses in Columbus and Washington. It was probably his best postseason run since the 2007-08 season where he stopped 93.3% of shots and almost won his first Cup.

But Murray is the better goaltender right now. He’s playing with more confidence and he’s healthy. There is no reason for the Penguins to mess with that.