The Penguins quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champions will kick off this Wednesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Before the series begins I wanted to take a moment to dive into the numbers behind this match-up and some video analysis of the last meeting between these two teams.
To start, it’s worth mentioning that Columbus is backing into the playoffs a bit. In the last 10 games, Columbus mustered a 3-5-2 record. That mark included the Penguins 4-1 win at PPG Paints Arena on April 4, a win that helped the Penguins solidify home ice advantage for this series. With Kris Letang on the shelf for the duration of the playoffs, the Penguins will need every advantage they can get. Thankfully, playing on home ice is more than just a slight advantage for the Penguins. Since Mike Sullivan took over as head coach in December of 2015, the Penguins are 57-14-6 at the Paint Can.
Let’s take a moment and dive into a brief data analysis of where these two teams stand.
What Do the Numbers Tell Us?
Let’s start from an offensive perspective by looking at shot-attempts generated per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time.
Pittsburgh: 58.75 (6th)
Columbus: 56.82 (12th)
The Penguins sat near the top of the NHL in terms of shot-generation all season. Things trailed off a bit as they struggled with injuries down the stretch. However (and we’ll see this as a theme throughout), both of these teams are adept at generating offense at a high level.
Let’s move on to scoring chances for per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time.
Pittsburgh: 10.30 (1st)
Columbus: 9.07 (5th)
Again, both the Penguins and Blue Jackets sit atop the league in their ability to generate scoring chances. The Penguins have held the top spot all year, only seeing a slight regression in the face of the injury bug, but it wasn’t enough to knock them off of the top spot. Columbus trails just behind them in a top five position. This data is also reflected in the Expected Goals data. Both teams find themselves at 1st and 5th respectively. If the regular season is any indication, there should be a lot of offense to be had in this series, especially considering how bad the defensive numbers for each team are.
Let’s take a quick peek at the defensive data, starting with shot-attempts against per 60.
Pittsburgh: 58.41 (23rd)
Columbus: 56.11 (19th)
What was true for offense is the reverse on defense. Both of these teams are below-average defensively, just at different levels of it. The Blue Jackets hold a slight edge on the Penguins in terms of their ability to limit shot-attempts.
Let’s take a look at where they stand in terms of scoring-chances against per 60.
Pittsburgh: 9.20 (27th)
Columbus: 8.78 (23rd)
Remember when I said this series should be full of offense and scoring chances? Now we can see why. Both teams here are fairly horrible when it comes to preventing scoring-chances, Columbus slightly less so. As was true earlier, this data is also reflected in the Expected Goals Against data. Goaltending does both of these teams a huge favor and bails them out more often than not.
These teams are among the league’s best in terms of offense, and among the league’s worst in terms of defense. It should be a barn-burner for that exact reason. With this series being such a coin-flip, I decided to go back and look at some video of the Penguins recent 4-1 victory over the Blue Jackets to see what head coach Mike Sullivan dialed up against his old mentor John Tortorella. Let’s take a look.
The Penguins aggressive forecheck is a problem for Columbus.
The Penguins bread and butter when it comes to neutral zone play is typically the 1-2-2 trap. But in the last meeting between these clubs, the Penguins upped the pressure and tried to prevent the Columbus attack from ever getting off the ground.
Instead of sending one lone forechecker into the offensive zone to pressure the Jacket’s breakout, Sullivan sent two. The results were extremely positive for the Penguins. It left Columbus frustrated and unable to maintain possession of the puck through the neutral zone.
This approach isn’t new for the Penguins coaching staff. They employed the same strategy in games six and seven against the Lightning last season, and that approach carried over for the duration of the series against San Jose. Let’s take a look at it in action:
As you can see, the Penguins force a behind the net D-to-D pass that puts constant pressure on the Columbus defense. They don’t have the time or the space to hit the forecheckers swinging into the zone to gain speed. Instead, they have to opt for a poor, deep outlet pass into traffic that trickles harmlessly into the Penguins defensive zone.
We get more of the same in the next example:
This approach to forechecking effectively drives a wedge right into the Jackets breakout. The constant presence of pressure from the Penguins forwards make life extremely difficult on the defensemen tasked with working this puck up ice.
When you take away the time and space of defensemen in a compromising position, there’s always a great chance you’ll generate a turnover. That’s exactly what happened in this next sequence:
The Penguins pressure finally cracks the Jackets defense at the end of this sequence. The pressure from Carter Rowney forces a bad D-to-D pass, the added pressure from Scott Wilson gives the Penguins possession and puts the Columbus defense in a state of confusion. This is a 3-on-2 disadvantage that turns into a goal for the Penguins.
What enables this system to work is the sheer speed of the Penguins roster. What adjustment do you make to account for that? That’s the hurdle John Tortorella is tasked with. Even if Columbus brings their forwards back into the zone deeper to assist with the breakout, the Penguins can sit back and wait for them in a neutral zone trap.
This series comes down to which team can mitigate damage the best and control the flow of the game offensively speaking. While I do expect Sergei Bobrovsky to make his mark on this series and steal a game from Columbus, I’ll take a Penguins team with the Rocket Richard winner Sidney Crosby, a fresh Evgeni Malkin, and the ability to generate turnovers via their forecheck.
Prediction: Penguins in Six.