Patric Hornqvist of the Pittsburgh Penguins may be getting a lot of well-deserved attention for his hat trick in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Rangers, but that game was a great example of how secondary players have to perform to give their teams an edge during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Secondary players become more important in the playoffs because each seven-game series generally involves two closely matched teams with top lines that tend to get worn down and cancel each other out. A premium is placed on players who can assume a greater role without taking undue risks or making mistakes.
Game 1 of the Penguins-Rangers series was an excellent example of this, beecause four different types stepped up for Pittsburgh in its 5-2 victory. Specifically goalie Jeff Zatkoff, defenseman Ben Lovejoy, defensive-minded forward Tom Kuhnhackl and offensive-minded forward Conor Sheary. In each case, enhanced statistics can help reveal how they made the difference.
In a backup goalie, teams necessarily aren't looking for someone capable of a game-stealing performance, but rather someone who consistently can give the team a chance to win when the starter is injured.
That description perfectly fits Zatkoff, who made 35 saves against the Rangers in his first Stanley Cup Playoff game.
Video: NYR@PIT, Gm1: Zatkoff robs Staal with kick stop
Any time a starting goalie stops a League-average number of shots or more, that is termed a quality start. Zatkoff has had 16 quality starts in 29 career regular-season games for a quality-start percentage of 55.2 percent. That exceeds the quality start percentage of 54.3 that Pittsburgh's No. 1 goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, has posted over the same three seasons, with 101 quality starts in 186 regular-season games (54.3 percent).
One of the factors in Zatkoff's success was when Lovejoy swatted a key rebound out of the reach of Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle while killing a Penguins penalty at 5:18 of the third period. If not for Lovejoy, Boyle likely would have scored the tying goal.
Lovejoy may not be a big part of the scoring, but having a player like him to capably handle shorthanded situations frees up the Penguins' other defensemen for even-strength and power-play assignments. Lovejoy played 3:58 shorthanded against the Rangers, and his average shorthanded ice time of 2:29 per game was best among Penguins defensemen to play at least 30 games with them.
Another big moment occurred seconds after Lovejoy's key defensive play, when Kuhnhackl gave the Penguins a 3-1 lead with a shorthanded goal at 5:31, which held up as the game-winner.
Video: NYR@PIT, Gm1: Kuhnhackl scores on shorthanded rush
Kuhnhackl plays right wing on the Penguins checking line with center Matt Cullen and left wing Eric Fehr. Those three are among Pittsburgh's top penalty-killers, but that is the line coach Mike Sullivan trusts in the defensive zone at even strength, so Sidney Crosby and the top lines can be employed in more offensive situations.
During the regular season, Fehr lined up for 119 faceoffs in the offensive zone and 283 in the defensive zone, for a zone start percentage of 29.6 percent, the lowest on the Penguins. Kuhnhackl and Cullen had offensive zone-start percentages of 32.3 and 37.4 percent, respectively. Against the Rangers, that line didn't have an offensive-zone faceoff.
Another key metric to consider is which players get the most ice time when the team is protecting a late lead, and the Fehr-Cullen-Kuhnhackl line was Pittsburgh's most frequently used, playing 10 shifts in the third period. Lovejoy, who also played 10 shifts in the third period, was the most frequently used defenseman.
Some role players are used for secondary scoring instead, and Sheary did his job in the final minute of the first period. While filling in for Chris Kunitz on the top line, Sheary retrieved a dump-in behind the net and fed the puck to Hornqvist, who scored the game's first goal at 19:42.
In the regular season, Sheary had seven goals and 10 points in 44 games. But rather than judge secondary scorers based on their overall numbers, consider their overall opportunity by measuring it on a per-minute basis. From that perspective, Sheary scored 1.54 points per 60 minutes at even-strength, just shy of the level (1.7) at which top-six forwards typically score.
Another point in Sheary's favor is the Penguins outplayed their opponents by 383 shot attempts-for to 281 against when he was on the ice in the regular season. That works out to a shot-attempt percentage of 57.7, which was second on the Penguins among players to skate in at least 10 games.
While players such as Hornqvist and Crosby get a lot of the attention, winning the Stanley Cup requires secondary players to step up. Having a backup goalie like Zatkoff to produce a quality start, defensive players like Lovejoy and Kuhnhackl to kill penalties and play shifts in the defensive zone and secondary players like Sheary to supplement the scoring were key to the Penguins starting the playoffs with a win, and will be critical for any future success.