Playoff Primer #3: Can the Stubborn Pittsburgh Penguins Adjust in a 7 Game Series? by @DXTraeger - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Playoff Primer #3: Can the Stubborn Pittsburgh Penguins Adjust in a 7 Game Series? by @DXTraeger

The NHL Playoffs are a, not literally Kris Letang
(photo from the 2015 Aces & Ice Casino Night for the Mario Lemieux Foundation via the Penguins' website)
noun  1.   Informal. anything unpredictable, risky, or problematical; gamble.

Even with advanced scouting, meticulous game-planning, and a burgeoning wealth of analytics, a NHL hockey game is a crapshoot: a collection of random events framed within the context of the rules.

Indeed, the inherent randomness of a single "win or go home" contest is what allowed the "Manning-to-Tyree" New York Giants to defeat the (previously undefeated) New England Patriots, and buena fortuna enabled Rollie Massimino's Villanova to shoot an ungodly 78.6% from the floor to bounce Georgetown in the 1985 National Championship Game.
Patrick Ewing led the 1985 Georgetown Hoyas
in Blood, Sweat, and 37 Step Travels

Had the tournament layout given the Patriots or Hoyas six more games in a best-of-seven scenario, there's no doubt who is coming out on top: the superior, clearly better team. least, that's the general premise behind the NHL's best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs.  The 2009 Detroit Red Wings were undoubtedly a superior team to the Penguins that year, but the Pens managed to win it all anyway.

Since that 2009 dream season, the Pittsburgh Penguins have lost to a lower seed each year in the playoffs.

While that stat sounds initially impressive, it loses some luster once you realize that the Penguins were a perennial top 3 seed and invariably had to play (and lose) to lower seeds.

That streak will, of course, end this year, as the Pens enter the playoffs as the #8 seed out of the Eastern Conference and will face the #1 seed (and last year's vanquishers), the New York Rangers.

What (if anything) can the Penguins do to avoid joining the Philadelphia Flyers with an early tee time, and will head coach Mike Johnston and staff actually employ those changes?

Possible Series Adjustment #1:  Mixing Up the Power-play

The Penguins' power-play has become the source of much consternation: in addition to not scoring goals despite a flux of elite talent, the first unit surrendered two shorthanded goals in critical games down the stretch.

What the Penguins have been trying to do all season is simple: by putting a pivot in the middle of the slot and another body in the crease, Pittsburgh is trying to force the opposing defense to collapse low in front of their own goaltender, thus allowing the Pens players on the perimeter (Crosby, Malkin, and the given point defenseman, likely Pouliot if healthy) time and space to rotate the puck for an open shot.

What's been happening, unfortunately, is that no shot attempt seems good enough for the players stationed in the circles, and rather than going from circle-to-point-to-circle for another one-timer attempt, the Penguins (and in particular Crosby) are trying to thread a near-impossible pass through upwards of eight bodies to Malkin on the other side for a presumed open net scoring chance.

The Rangers will likely employ a similar defense against the Penguins.  Ever since the days of John Tortorella, the Rangers have made their proverbial hay by getting in front of netminder Henrik Lundqvist and blocking shots.  Also, given that Marc Staal was allowed to attack Sidney Crosby's head with total impunity, it's likely that any Pittsburgh player who ventures near the crease will be similarly attacked without recourse, limiting rebound opportunities.

The Pens can mix things up in two ways:

     1)  Shoot the puck from the circle anyway.  This sounds like an impatient fan response, and to be fair, Pittsburgh has its own little soundtrack celebrating precisely this.  If the shot is coming from either circle via the aforementioned passing tactic, the shot has a higher chance of at least reaching Lundqvist.

Shooting from the high point (versus either circle) is the least effective shooting tactic because there are more players the puck has to elude on its way to the net, and a direct block off the shinguards of a defender is effectively a breakout pass going the other way for a shorthanded scoring situation.  
This is more or less the exact power-play the Philadelphia Flyers use, and judging by their ridiculous success, the formula works.

     2)  Develop plays from behind the net.  Having Crosby work in Gretzky's Office accomplishes a few things immediately: with the puck behind him, Lundqvist has to guard both posts and will retreat to literally inside his own net, and defenders will be forced to vacate their shot-blocking positions to better cover pass outlets.

The Penguins would likely then try a rapid cycle to entice at least one defender into pressuring the puck carrier below the goal line, which means the Penguins then have an overload situation in front.

At that point, the Penguins can revert back to circle-to-point-to-circle and shoot with Crosby reappearing on the opposite side of the net for rebounds.

If this sounds too good to be true, it kind of is, outside of the fact that a heinous turnover would leave the center buried deep in the other team's end and could, again, lead to the dreaded oddman shorthanded scoring chance.

Possible Series Adjustment #2:  Multiple Breakouts and Multiple Transition Strategies

Dan Bylsma was mocked for his insistence that his Penguin teams "get to their game," which was Bylsma's mindset that Pittsburgh's superior individual talent would/should actively dictate the ebb and flow of each hockey game regardless of whatever defensive matchup or scheme the opposing coach employed.

As history shows, either the Penguins sucked at "getting to their game" or matchups and opposing countermeasures were, in fact, better than Pittsburgh's best players.  Regardless, Bylsma was a tactician in the sense that he had plays on top of plays for his stars to run, and a huge element of Bylsma's "game" was the Pens' transition and breakout game.

Mike Colligan has already written the defacto bible for breaking down the Penguins' breakouts this season, and reading his work is an absolute must for Thursday night's Game 1 affair.
Follow @SteveBurtch.  Now.  Go ahead.  Do it.

Suffice it to say that while the Penguins' Corsi For (attempted shots on goal) statistics in the homestretch of the season were outstanding (suggesting that Pittsburgh dominated puck possession against opponents), the Pens still kept losing game after game, and the reason is simple:  terrible breakouts and turnovers in transition.

Again, as Colligan's work details, if you want to create a guaranteed-to-get-you-plastered drinking game (in the safety of your own home, of course: always imbibe responsibly), just count the number of times the Penguins "get cute" and turn the puck over in their own defensive zone.

These turnovers lead directly to elite scoring chances for the other team, which is in large part why the Penguins floundered so badly despite grossly outplaying their opponents.

The key for Pittsburgh isn't necessarily to use "Breakout A" or "Breakout B," but to rather leave their options open and be willing to try different things should it become obvious that the Rangers have game-planned for the stock Penguin transition out of their own end.

Having that level of versatility, unfortunately, requires a large measure of familiarity, and the injuries at the blue line— where transitions and breakouts are so critical— have left the Pens scrambling for bodies, which is why the pairing of two Wilkes-Barre defensemen seems like a logical event strictly for familiarity's sake.

The margin for error is going to be razor thin against the Rangers, and perhaps entering the playoffs as a decided underdog is good for this team and good for this franchise.  The pressure to win will always be hanging over Crosby and Malkin, but in this series, they're not expected to succeed, 

Still, given the crapshoot nature of the post-season, all bets will be off once the puck drops at center ice.  

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