With the bitter taste of last season’s defeat in the Stanley Cup finals assuredly still on their lips, the high-scoring Pittsburgh Penguins, led by a pair of wunderkinds in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, seek to return to the finals. Standing in their way are the Carolina Hurricanes, a team which has never really earned much respect in hockey circles, but has appeared in two of the last six Cup finals, winning it all in 2006. If experience is a factor, presumably the Canes have a slight edge. However, if Crosby and Malkin continue doing their best Lemieux and Jagr impersonations, the Penguins will be a tough team to beat.
Pittsburgh Offense vs. Carolina Defense
Pittsburgh Offense GVT: + 28.4 (Ranks: 2nd in NHL)
Carolina Defense GVT: + 7.7 (Rank: 10th in NHL)
Carolina Goaltending GVT: + 3.7 (Rank 13th in NHL)
This is where the series should be determined. Other than their even strength offense, the Penguins are an unremarkable team. Pittsburgh's offense was 28.4 GVT above average during the regular season in even strength play, which was the second-highest total in the league behind Detroit. Carolina is generally an unremarkable team, but the closest thing they have to a real strength is their even strength, 5-on-5 defense, where they had a 7.7 GVT.
Sidney Crosby has been a terror at even strength during the playoffs, scoring seven goals and 14 points in his 13 games, or 1.08 points per game. In contrast, Evgeni Malkin has been relying on the man advantage to record his points in the postseason, managing “only” nine ES points, or 0.69 per game.
The Penguins’ secondary scorers are not doing their jobs. Chris Kunitz has yet to score in 13 playoff games, and Jordan Staal has only two goals. Of course, Crosby and Malkin are arguably enough to carry the team’s offense by themselves, especially when backed up by the likes of Sergei Gonchar.
Then we have Cam Ward. What do we make of him? He has made only two postseason appearances in his career. In 2006 he led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup finals by recording a .920 save percentage, which far outstripped his regular season mark of .882 that year. Since then he’s had two mediocre seasons (.897 and .904), and then this year put up a solid .916 mark. Looking for a pattern we see him improving each year, so maybe the .927 save percentage he recorded in the first two rounds shouldn’t be too surprising. There’s also the notion that he’s a “playoff goalie”, which I suspect is a load of hogwash. He has played only 37 playoff games in his career, and making a determination about a goalie’s quality based on such a small number is a mistake. Remember Jim Carey? Bill Ranford had a reputation as a “clutch” goalie, but if you look at his career record he only had one good postseason. However, reputations are hard to shake once they have been established.
Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins
Carolina Offense vs. Pittsburgh Defense
Carolina Offense GVT: - 3.3 (Rank: 19th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Defense GVT: - 0.8 (Rank: 18th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Goaltending GVT: + 1.6 (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Staal has been the offensive leader for the Hurricanes, which is to be expected. Unexpected is Jussi Jokinen’s four even strength goals so far in the playoffs, considering he scored only five during the entire regular season. Further down the list, though, we see that Carolina has several players not scoring at their usual pace. Eric Cole is has yet to score a goal in 14 postseason games, and Rod Brind’Amour, Tuomo Ruutu and Scott Walker have only one apiece. Perhaps this does not matter, though. At even strength the Hurricanes should be focused on shutting down the fast Penguin offense. Maybe offense should be a secondary concern.
On the blueline, Pittsburgh has an interesting mix of players. Gonchar plays in all situations, while Letang is an offensive specialist (3.7 offensive GVT, -0.5 defensive GVT). The remaining defensemen are all strictly defensive skaters, however. Rob Scuderi (0.0 offensive GVT), Philippe Boucher (0.1), Hal Gill (-0.3), Brooks Orpik (-0.2) and Mark Eaton (-0.4) generally do not strike feat into the hearts of opposing goaltenders. Of course, Eaton has somehow managed to score four goals in the playoffs, on only 10 shots! However, his role is not to score, but rather to shut down opponents with his like-minded brethren.
Pittsburgh Power Play vs. Carolina Penalty Kill
Pittsburgh Power Play Offense GVT: - 6.2 (Rank: 20th in NHL)
Carolina Penalty Kill Defense GVT: - 2.0 (Rank: 19th in NHL)
The Pittsburgh power play has been effective in the postseason, recording 13 tallies in 13 games. When I say “the Pittsburgh power play” of course, I mean Crosby, Malking and Gonchar. These three have combined for 10 of the 13 goals, and each has at least seven PP points. Fourth-best on the team is Kris Letang with three, and then three more players have one each. These three men are the Pittsburgh power play, and they are very effective at what they do. However, these teams had been about even throughout the regular season in this special teams situation, so it will be interesting to see if the Penguins can keep up there power play hot streak.
Carolina Power Play vs. Pittsburgh Penalty Kill
Carolina Power Play Offense GVT: - 0.9 (Rank: 18th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penalty Kill Defense GVT: + 5.8 (Rank: 6th in NHL)
Carolina’s power play has been pitiful thus far in the playoffs, managing only five goals in 14 games, all scored by either Staal or Jussi Jokinen. Ray Whitney has three PP assists, and beyond that the team shows a whole lot of nothing with the man advantage. Joe Corvo and Anton Babchuk have not been nearly as effective as they were during the regular season.
If Carolina wants to beat Pittsburgh, they must score on the power play. They are outmatched by the Penguins at even strength, so their best chance at winning this series comes from taking advantage of the mistakes Pittsburgh makes and getting great opportunites with the man advantage.
Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins
Season Series Results
Pittsburgh outscored Carolina 11-7 head-to-head during the regular season in regulation time, excluding empty-net goals. The Penguins had the advantage both at even strength (7-5) and on the power play (4-2). Despite the small sample size, these are about the results we would expect, though Pittsburgh’s advantage on the power play is not that large.
Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins
Injuries and Intangibles
Pittsburgh’s secondary scoring has not been what it should be. Miro Satan missed some time with an injury, but is back in the lineup now. He has yet to score in seven playoff games. Even worse is Petr Sykora, who has been scratched recently, possibly due to a lingering shoulder problem, and possibly due to his consistently poor performances since returning. He has only three points in 19 games since coming back from his injury in March, whereas he had 23 goals before the injury, though his production was more than made up for by Kunitz (in the regular season at least).
On the NHL website recently, a big deal was made of the fact that Carolina was 22-3-2 when Eric Staal scored at least one goal. That certainly seems impressive, but does it mean anything?
First of all, breaking down losses like that can be misleading. The Hurricanes weren’t 22-3-2 when Staal scored, they were 22-5. Wins are not broken down by regulation and overtime/shootout, so losses should not be either (when presenting the information). A record of 22-5 is a winning percentage of .815, which is obviously very impressive.
Of course it is completely lacking in context. The facts as presented seem to imply that Staal scores when it really counts, and thus the Canes win when he scores. If that’s not the implication, then it’s just an empty factoid (which is certainly a possibility). The missing context is this: when Chad LaRose scored, the Hurricanes had a winning percentage of .813 (13-3 record). Their winning percentage was .769 when Joe Corvo scored (10-3), .733 when Sergei Samsonov scored (11-4), and .688 when Rod Brind’Amour scored, not to mention .800 when either Dennis Seidenberg or Patrick Eaves scored (both 4-1).
The point is that the baseline of this type of statistic is not .500, which many people would assume when presented with a winning percentage stat. The baseline isn’t even the team’s overall winning percentage. Why? You’re cherry-picking the performances. Other than Staal, the Hurricanes scored 2.43 goals per game. In the games that Staal scored at least one goal, he scored an average of 1.48 goals. Of course the team won a large percentage of their games when he scored; he increased their average goals from 2.43 to 3.91. That makes a huge difference.
So in some sense, LaRose’s performance was more impressive than Staal’s. LaRose only scored 1.19 goals per game in the games he scored at least one goal, and yet he elevated his team to the same level as Staal did.
Nearly every player will have numbers like this because, without that particular player scoring, you can expect the team to score an average number of goals in a game. By looking only at games in which that specific player scored, then, you know the team will be scoring an above-average number of goals, and therefore will win an above-average number of games. For a player like Staal who seems to score goals in bunches (in 2008-09 at least), the effect will generally be more pronounced. In 2007-08, when he scored only 1.15 goals in games in which he scored, his team’s winning percentage was .727, far short of the .815 from this year.
If Pittsburgh’s secondary scorers regain their form, this series could be a short one. Firing on all cylinders, the Penguin offense would be too much for a merely good Carolina defense. Based on regular season performance, Pittsburgh is the clear favorite, with our odds showing that the Penguins have a 55% chance to win this series. Cam Ward may have a reputation as a playoff goalie, but Pittsburgh’s big guns are a very large obstacle to overcome.
Prediction: Pittsburgh Penguins in 6 Games