Pittsburgh has a legit claim of being the best team in the Eastern Conference. Lead by a pair of the best offensive centers in the league, a deep defense and very strong coaching, they are an extremely difficult team to beat unless their goaltending fails them. How does this powerhouse function?
The biggest advantage MTL has going into this match is Evgeni Malkin is down for the count. One simply does not replace a 61.5% shot attempt ratio player, especially one whose offensive talent also allows him to consistently score more than his shots for would suggest. Although that was with soft minute usage (67% Offensive zone draws). Without Malkin, the scoring role will fall entirely on Sidney Crosby and Pittsburgh’s top two scoring wingers, James Neal and Chris Kunitz. The Penguins' strategy this year was Malkin on offense, Sutter on defense and Crosby playing both ways. They are going to have to find a new winning strategy now that Malkin is gone.
Crosby and Neal run at about 55% shot ratios together, obviously a very dangerous line especialy since Crosby’s on ice shooting tends to be around a quarter better than league average (~10% compared to league average of 8%). This is about as deadly as any line in the NHL. The problem for Pittsburgh is after this monster line. Brandon Sutter is filling the shutdown role that J. Staal once did, but without Staal’s flair for puck control. Sutter sits at around 45% puck possession with Cooke and Kennedy while taking the bulk of defensive zone draws and top opposition. A valuable role to be sure, but less so when its setting up just one dominant offensive line rather than two.
AHL call up Dustin Jeffery centers Crosby’s old linemates in Pascal Dupuis and Beau Bennett. Jeffery and Dupuis have played together before, being 53.4% in shot attempts and 50% in goals in a career 254 minutes together. Considering Pittsburgh’s team strength over that time, this shows essentially that they don’t drag the ship down together but lack any kind of offensive flair that you would want from the 2nd line. This is the best of a bad situation for Pittsburgh.
Joe Vitale centers a goonish 4th line. They don’t play much and when they do they get slaughtered in hockey playing terms (43% shot attempt ratio), but they do soak up some defensive zone draws so aren’t completely worthless. Similar role to MTL’s 4th line but worse at executing it.
Letang leads a big minute eating line, albeit one that doesn’t have the top shutdown duties. Very strong on puck possession (54.7% with Niskanen) and pretty solid all round. Letang gets to much credit as a two-way defenseman in my opinion due to how much benefit he gets as Crosby and Malkin’s caddy, but he is a quality player.
Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik play the shutdown role, top competition and 45% offensive zone starts. As a result they are under-water in puck possession (47.4% corsi) and goals (43.5% 5 on 5 goals for/against). The pair of veterans have a long track record of good play on defense but are more good than dominant these days.
Bortuzzo is above water in 5 on 5 play in general playing a 3rd pairing role, but sinks when paired with a face-puncher in Deryk Engelland. Together they are 46% in shot attempts ratio playing a very limited role. Pittsburgh often prefers to cycle the two of them with a member of their top 4 rather than live with the two of them together.
The Crosby centered unit is above average in shots and goals and should be considered fairly dangerous, but not dominant. Their 2nd unit is very weak though. If a goal happens, generally it happens to start the PP rather than at the end when Pittsburgh’s lack of offensive depth is exposed. The top unit plays a lot though, as a result the Penguins are 5th in goals per hour on the PP this season with 8.39. But with an overall shot rate of 49.8 per hour (a more pedestrian 12th in the league) and missing Malkin I’d expect them to fall away from the top with the man advantage.
Overall, the Pittsburgh Penguins are below average on the penalty kill, 6.52 goals against per hour (19th) and 51.2 shots against per hour (23rd). They tend to be stronger with Sutter on the ice and weaker with Cooke and 5th forward Tanner Glass. On defense, the Martin-Orpik pairing is relatively good and they level of play declines in their absence.
Its all about Crosby with Malkin out of the lineup. With home ice last change, Montreal is likely to feed him Prust-Plekanec-Gionta backed by Markov-Emelin for the entire night. After that, its a question of which Montreal scoring line Pittsburgh is going to stick Sutter on.
Pittsburgh is on off the East’s best puck possession clubs with 52.0% fenwick close and 56.8% fenwick tied which has lead them to a strong 55.1% goal ratio 5 on 5 (43 for and 35 against). Their goaltending has been kinda week (18th in 5 on 5 save%) but that isn’t enough to sink their ability to dominant opponents in regular play. In special teams terms, they are only +1 on the year so they aren’t as great there. They’ve been arguably the 2nd best team in the East this year after Boston, but they might actually be much worse without Malkin.