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Penguins winning without playing best hockey

Pittsburgh into Eastern Conference Final against Senators despite being worst possession team in playoffs

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Can the worst possession team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs win it all?

Ordinarily, no.

In this case, yes.

Because right now that team is the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Though they've been weakened by injuries and haven't played their best, they've defeated two of the top-five teams in the NHL standings, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals, and will play the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Final. Game 1 is at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).

"Without a doubt we can play better," defenseman Ian Cole said. "Everyone knows that. … I think it leads to a lot of excitement knowing that, hey, we're getting the job done and we're not even playing our best hockey. We have a lot more ahead of us. We can put together a way better team game."


[RELATED: Complete Penguins vs. Senators series coverage]


If they do, and maybe even if they don't, the Penguins can become the first repeat Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.

When the Penguins won the Cup last year, they controlled 51.57 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5. Each team that has won the Cup since 2010, as far back as the enhanced stats go on, has controlled more than 50.0 percent of shot attempts.

Put simply, champions usually have the puck more than their opponents.

But last year the Penguins had defenseman Kris Letang. He averaged 28:52 of ice time per game, and they had 54.86 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 when he was on the ice, fifth on the team.

However, Letang is out with a neck injury this year. Defenseman Trevor Daley has missed the past two games because of a lower-body injury. Forwards Carl Hagelin (seven), Chris Kunitz (five), Sidney Crosby (one) and Conor Sheary (one) have missed games because of injuries. Others have been banged up.

Video: Take a look at the Penguins vs. Senators series

Kunitz (58.08) and Sheary (56.43), were first and third, respectively, in shot-attempts percentage during the 2016 playoffs. Crosby was eighth at 54.16 percent and Hagelin was 13th at 50.51 percent.

This year the Penguins have spent too much time in their zone, haven't used their speed through the neutral zone as well and haven't sustained as much pressure in the offensive zone.

Through two rounds they have had 42.14 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5, the worst percentage among the 16 playoff teams, let alone the four teams still playing. The Anaheim Ducks are fourth at 53.40 percent, the Senators sixth at 51.23 percent, the Nashville Predators eighth at 50.22 percent.

Look at it a different way: The Penguins have 485 shot attempts at 5-on-5 and allowed 666. That's a minus-181 differential. That's 181 more shots on goal, shots missed and shots blocked; 181 more pucks that have had a chance to find the back of their net.

The next-worst team? The St. Louis Blues at minus-102. None of the other three teams still playing are negative. The Ducks are plus-75, the Senators plus-29, the Predators plus-4.

But what about score effects? Doesn't it skew the numbers when teams play with the lead or push to come back?


The Penguins still are the worst.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Guentzel nets Crosby's quick feed

In situations when teams are within one goal or tied in the third period, the Penguins have had 42.04 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5. For contrast, the Ducks are second in the League at 55.17 percent. The Predators are at 52.35 percent, the Senators at 50.56 percent.

The Penguins have a League-worst minus-108 differential. The Ducks are plus-59, the Predators plus-28, the Senators plus-10.

Don't like enhanced stats? Here are some traditional ones: The Penguins have been outshot in 11 of their 12 games, 423-332 total. They are allowing 35.3 shots per game, the most of any team in the playoffs, while taking 27.7, the third-fewest.

They have been winning for four main reasons:

1. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury: He's 8-4 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in 12 games. He has allowed two goals or fewer in seven of his eight wins.

2. Blocked shots: The Penguins have blocked 250 shots, most in the playoffs.

3. Opportunistic scoring: The Penguins have elite players like Crosby, center Evgeni Malkin and forward Phil Kessel, as well as strong supporting players such as forwards Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust. Malkin leads the playoffs with 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) and Guentzel leads in goals with nine. The Penguins don't necessarily need a high volume of shots to score; they can capitalize on limited chances and the power play. They've scored on 21.6 percent of their power plays, fourth in the playoffs.

4. Knowing the first three: "I think we have an extremely resilient team," forward Matt Cullen said. "We have a lot of guys that have done it before. We never count ourselves out of it. Obviously with the star power we have, we know it just takes one shot and we're back in the game. But I think as a group we knew we can play better."

Video: The crew talks about the Penguins' Game 7 Win

They played their best game of the playoffs when they defeated the Capitals 2-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round on Wednesday, culminating in their best period of the playoffs. Playing with the lead, they kept the pressure on the Capitals in the third period and outshot them 11-6.

"I thought that was the closest thing to the Penguins identity that we've seen in the playoffs so far," coach Mike Sullivan said.

It will be interesting to see how the Penguins handle the Senators. They haven't seen a defenseman as dynamic as Erik Karlsson. They burned the Blue Jackets and Capitals for being aggressive against them at times; the Senators like to sit back.

But they are the defending champions. They finished second in the NHL standings this season. In the first round they defeated the Blue Jackets, who finished fourth, and in the second round they defeated the Capitals, who were first. They are the only team still playing that finished in the top five. The Ducks were sixth, the Senators 12th, the Predators 16th.

The worst possession team in the playoffs is the favorite.

"As a group we know there's another gear," Cullen said. "And I think we're all just really happy we get a chance to try to find it in this next series."

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