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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The Hockey News Podcast: Third-round playoff preview, plus what went wrong with the Capitals

The Hockey News
Joe Pavelski (Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

On this edition of the podcast, we break down the conference final series and make our predictions.

We also discuss what went wrong with the Washington Capitals and how they can improve. We also talk analytics and struggle mightily to pronounce our colleague Dominik Luszczyszyn‘s last name.

Download and subscribe on iTunes, and on Soundcloud.

[Music: Metz-Headache; Quicksand-Omission]

Advanced stats vs. the eye test: Penguins are heavy favorites among Final Four

Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The final four is set: Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, St. Louis and San Jose are the last teams left vying for the Stanley Cup. It’s an interesting and exciting group, but it’s also not an unexpected one if you paid attention to the numbers.

Before every round, 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. So far, the stats have come out on top and those four teams were pretty much exactly the predicted final four.

Pittsburgh was the top team in the league. St. Louis was tops in the Central and fourth overall. Tampa Bay was tops in the Atlantic and seventh overall. And San Jose was second in the Pacific behind LA, but third overall in the league.

Not bad for a bunch of numbers, let’s see how they do in the conference final. But first a quick recap of where the stats and eyes differed in opinion for round two, and some adjustments to the method.

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2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs third-round preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

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SERIES STARTS: Friday, 8 p.m. ET in Pittsburgh.

THE LIGHTNING WIN IF…

Whereas Pittsburgh got one goal from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined in the second round, Tampa’s best players continue to be its best players. The NHL may have to cut the Conn Smythe Trophy into pieces and hand them out to several Bolts if they win the Stanley Cup. Nikita Kucherov has been a monster, ripping off nine goals in 10 games, and Tyler Johnson, last year’s league-leading playoff scorer, has recaptured the magic with 13 points in 10 games.

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