That ‘other’ big line could be key to Penguins Stanley Cup chances

Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust. (Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH – It bodes well for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup chances if the term “big line” applies to any number of their forward trios. Sidney Crosby between Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist? Sure, that’s a big line, by virtue of Sid playing on it. The ‘HBK’ line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel has been the talk of the playoffs.

But the line du jour giving opponents fits? Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Chris Kunitz. Rust has scored in three straight games dating back to the Eastern Conference final, including a breakaway dagger in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, both goals in a 2-1 Game 7 victory and the first tally of the night in Game 1 of the final against the San Jose Sharks. Each of those Rust goals was assisted by Malkin or Kunitz.

And this line could hold the key to the rest of the final – because its fate could go in so many different directions.

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Advanced stats vs. the eye test: models split on who will win Stanley Cup

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The long road to the Stanley Cup final is finally over and depending on your outlook, the two teams playing are either very surprising or exactly what you expected.

From the East we’ve got the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with a sketchy D-corps and – at the start of the playoffs – an injured starting goalie. A team that has disappointed a few times in past playoff seasons despite their talent.

From the West we’ve got the San Jose Sharks, a team not many would believe could actually go far in the playoffs without actually seeing it for themselves first. A team that has choked year after year.

I can see why some people would be surprised.

Before the playoffs began, we here at THN previewed three different sets of predictions: one based on stats, one based on the eye test, and a combination of the two.

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Will Penguins’ patchwork defense corps be their Achilles’ heel in the final?

Ben Lovejoy. (Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH – This thing is going six or seven games. That’s the consensus among hockey pundits. The Stanley cup final between the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins is so evenly matched that few if anyone can imagine a short series.

Both teams have tremendous star power at forward. Both teams have steady, confident young goaltenders. Both teams get contributions from all four lines. Both teams have a Clydesdale No. 1 defenseman.

There appears to be one distinct edge in this matchup on paper, however. The Sharks have the deeper, more experienced defense corps. Paul Martin and Brent Burns have been among the NHL’s very best tandems all season. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun have formed a strong second pair. Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak are no slouches, either.

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How the Mike Sullivan effect turned the Penguins into playoff bullies

Mike Sullivan and Sidney Crosby. (Photo by Jason Behnken/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins have become the schoolyard bullies of these Stanley Cup playoffs, and not in the traditional sense. You won’t see this team dropping mitts with reckless abandon. Their opponents don’t come down with the CONSOL Energy Center Flu, as traumatized teams used to every time they visited the Philadelphia Spectrum in the mid-1970s.

No, these Penguins are a different kind of bully. They tilt the ice to what feels like a 45-degree angle and cram puck after puck after puck down their opponents’ throats. They are the modern incarnation of an intimidator: the analytics version, pelting opponents with shot attempts.

Per war-on-ice.com, The Tampa Bay Lightning were one of the NHL’s best possession teams, ranking sixth in score-adjusted Corsi percentage, and the Penguins made Tampa look like the exact opposite. The Corsi (shot attempt) margins for Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference final:

Game 1: 71-40
Game 2: 69-44
Game 3: 78-50
Game 4: 65-48
Game 5: 54-56
Game 6: 55-60
Game 7: 64-42

The Penguins controlled the possession game five times in the series. They kept their foot on Tampa’s throat regardless of the score. Instead of going into a defensive shell with a lead in the third period of Game 7, Pittsburgh outshot Tampa 10-7. The margin was 39-17 overall.

How does Pittsburgh seemingly put every opponent, even the offensively elite Washington Capitals in Round 2, back on its heels? The straightforward answer is speed. The Conor Sheary-Sidney Crosby-Patric Hornqvist line skates. The HBK line, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, really skates. The Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-Bryan Rust line skates. Fleet-footed Rust put daggers in the Bolts’ hearts in Games 6 and 7. The D-corps, from Kris Letang to Olli Maatta, skates. But it’s more than that. This team’s personality changed completely Dec. 12, 2015, when coach Mike Sullivan took over. They ranked 20th in 5-on-5 score adjusted Corsi and 28th in goals per game at the time of coach Mike Johnston’s firing. Sullivan came in, and the Pens were second only to the Los Angeles Kings for the rest of the season in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi. It seems Sullivan unlocked or unshackled this team.

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The Hockey News Podcast: Stanley Cup final preview, and predictions

The Hockey News
Stanley Cup (Getty Images)

On this edition of the podcast, the THN gang breaks down the Stanley Cup final. We discuss who has the edge in five important categories — plus three bonus intangible categories.

It also features a special appearance by the office alarm. There was a fire drill during the recording of the podcast, but we decided to power through to bring you this episode. Enjoy.

Download and subscribe on iTunes, and on Soundcloud.

[Music: Metz-Headache; Quicksand-Omission]

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs third-round preview: St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

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SERIES STARTS: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, in St. Louis.

THE BLUES WIN IF…

The backbone of the Blues’ run to the Western Conference final has been Brian Elliott, and barring his hiccup in Game 6 of the second round, Elliott has been fantastic. Through two seven-game series, he has a 2.29 goals-against average and .929 SP, but the sheer number of high-danger saves Elliott has had to make is incredible. He could easily have some of the worst numbers of any netminder in this post-season, and it wouldn’t be any fault of his own. Instead, he’s stepped up and dominated in nearly every game he has played.

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