Wow. The Penguins did it again.
And should we even really be shocked any more?
On the 1 year anniversary of the Nick Bonino overtime winner against the Capitals last year in game 6, the Penguins once again beat their division rival to move on to the next round. Although this time, it took 7 games. Going into the game, many Penguins fans thought that the Caps were going to end it. I knew that if any team was going to pull off this win, it would be the Penguins, but I really didn’t think they actually would.
Well until they did, of course.
Marc-Andre Fleury pitched a shutout, which adds to this story-book ending of the series, as the Penguins knock the Capitals out of the playoffs with a 2-0 win in Washington, and now hold a 9-1 lead in the series against the Caps.
Let’s make this clear: A Penguins’ team that was clearly concerned about losing Kris Letang for 1 game against the Capitals last year just took out the President’s Trophy winners without him.
And Matt Murray…
And a banged up D-core…
Oh yeah, and they played almost 2 games without Conor Sheary and Sidney Crosby!
Not to mention that this was a Capitals team that remained healthy all year, were healthy in the playoffs, dealt for Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline, and were once again the clear favorites to finally lift Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Until they ran into the Penguins. Again.
The Penguins were outplayed for the majority of this series, but they found ways to win hockey games, 4 out of 7 to be exact, against an extremely talented hockey team. So, how did the Penguins pull it off, despite blowing a 3-1 series lead and having to go back to Washington for a do-or-die game 7? Here is my series analysis, which includes 5 main reasons as to why the Penguins were able to emerge victorious, once again:
Marc-Andre Fleury > Braden Holtby
The Capitals needed Braden Holtby to be…well…Braden Holtby if they were going to beat the Penguins in these 2017 playoffs. In fact, they simply needed Holtby to be the better goaltender between him and Fleury. Unfortunately, for the Capitals, this was not the case.
The Penguins generated some decent chances throughout the series, but not once outshot the Capitals in a single game. Holtby did not have to stop a ton of pucks, so one would think that he would have had the edge over Fleury.
Well, he may have. But the stats indicate otherwise.
Holtby had an abysmal .887 save percentage (17 goals on 151 shots), compared to his .925 save percentage in the regular season, good enough for the former Vezina winner to be yet another nominee to win the trophy for the 2016-17 year as the NHL’s top goaltender. However, it was the Penguins’ goaltender, Fleury, that looked like the Vezina Trophy nominee in this series.
Fleury kept his hot play from round 1 going into round 2, and put up a .921 save percentage (18 goals on 227 shots) in this series, including a shutout in game 7. Although a .921 save percentage is quite good, I still do not think it even comes close to describing how well he played in this series and how many absolutely unbelievable stops he made. One, in particular, comes to mind:
Without their top defenseman Letang, the Penguins will need him to continue to be their best player if they want a chance at moving on. Fleury seems up to the task, as he holds a .927 save percentage in these playoffs. If he can keep up these kind of stats behind a dangerous Penguins’ offense that leads the NHL in playoff scoring…they just might have a chance.
Penguins’ Stars > Capitals’ Stars
Simply put, throughout the series, the Penguins star players stepped up to the plate. The Capitals’ stars didn’t, especially when they needed it most in game 7.
Evgeny Kuznetsov was, in my opinion, the Capitals’ best player this series. He needed to be a factor if the Capitals were to win this series, but he should not have been their best player…
Alexander Ovechkin had a few goals, sure, but none of them were game-changers. He made mistakes in his defensive zone that cost his team goals more often than not, and played in a 3rd line in the final 3 games of the series, receiving less ice time than 6 other Capitals’ forwards in game 7.
Nick Backstrom had his moments, but didn’t really stick out at all to me.
TJ Oshie was largely just kind of there for this series. He generated chances and was often causing mayhem in front of the net, but he did not contribute much offensively.
Justin Williams, Mr. Game 7 himself, was “out-Mr.-Game-7-ed” by Penguins’ forward Bryan Rust, and was largely invisible for the entire series.
John Carlson was…wait, who is he?
On the Penguins side, Crosby was about as good as it gets when he was healthy. Evgeni Malkin didn’t play his best hockey throughout the series but generated good chances, put up decent stats, and stepped up when Sid was out. Phil Kessel scored a few important goals for the Pens and continued to impress in the playoffs. Jake Guentzel continued his production and still leads the NHL playoffs in goal scoring. Nick Bonino came in clutch again in game 1 to give the Penguins the win. And somehow, someway, Rust scored again and leaves Washington, DC with another elimination game game-winning goal in his back pocket.
Simply put: the Penguins’ big named guys outplayed the Capitals’ big named guys when it mattered most. Period.
Quick Strike Ability
For the majority of this series, the Penguins were badly outplayed. Ironically, one of their better games, game 3, was one of the games they would lose. Regardless, the Penguins truly were not the better team for probably 80% of this series.
They were outshot 227-151, and often times the Capitals were able to have multiple shifts in a game where they would have the Penguins completely pinned in their zone. The Penguins were not able to do this often to the Capitals. And yet, they were able to win the series.
I think this was mainly due to the Penguins quick strike ability. It seemed as though many of the Penguins goals came after an extended shift for Washington when it seemed like they were going to get a goal. All of the sudden, someone has a breakaway or the Penguins have a 3 on 2 the other way and score.
The Penguins shooting percentage was 11.26% in this series, which is incredibly high. I really do not think Holtby played an awful series. His stats were not good at all, but I honestly think the Penguins simply scored at will when they needed to and generated high-danger scoring chances and capitalized, unlike the Caps.
The Penguins Are In Their Heads
The Penguins own a 9-1 series lead over the Washington Capitals, and Ovechkin has yet to see an Eastern Conference Final. Oh, and every Stanley Cup the Penguins’ have won in the Crosby era involve the Penguins going through Washington.
Need I say more?
The Penguins, somehow, took a 3-1 series lead into game 5, but it certainly did not feel like a 3-1 series lead. The Penguins even took a 2-1 lead into the 3rd period of game 5, before allowing 3 goals in the 3rd and losing 4-2. The Penguins then came back home for a game 6 with another chance to wipe out the Capitals, and were just straight up man-handled. The Caps put up 5 straight goals to open the scoring, and the Pens would lose 5-2 as Guentzel and Malkin put up meaningless tallies in the games’ waning minutes.
The series then shifted to Washington for game 7, and it just screamed 2010 Eastern Conference Finals against the Canadiens all over again. The Penguins had the 3-1 lead coming off of a Cup win the previous year, but just became too fatigued and did not have the drive, heart, or energy to finish it off.
Except the guy behind the bench isn’t Michel Therrien or Dan Bylsma.
Sullivan and his coaching staff should receive a ton of credit for this game 7 win and series win. The Penguins, after being dominated at home in embarrassing fashion, had a practice that was almost entirely X’s and O’s, as stated by multiple sites/sources. The coaching staff knew what they needed to adjust against Washington, and clearly, they pushed the right buttons, as the 2-0 final game 7 score indicated. Sullivan said after the game that this was the best game for the Penguins this postseason, and it’s hard to disagree.
This team felt the pressure of game 7, but they fed off of it, rather than let it get to them like this team had in the past, and I attribute that to Mike Sullivan. He has changed this team and their mindset, and makes it extremely difficult to ever count these Penguins out.
Sullivan is now 6-0 in playoff series as the Penguins’ head coach, and you can bet he wants to be 8-0 after this year.
He’s not done, and these Penguins aren’t done either…
Bring it on, Ottawa.