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Penguins winning in playoffs despite poor possession numbers

Pittsburgh 5-1 in postseason, has spent too much time in own zone

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

WASHINGTON -- The Pittsburgh Penguins don't have to outplay you to beat you. They have so much speed and skill, all they need is a mistake, a turnover, an opening, and they can create a scoring chance. If they cash in, if they convert on the power play, if they block shots and make saves, they can leave you looking at the stat sheet and shaking your head.

The Penguins finished second in the NHL standings in the regular season even though they were a middle-of-the-pack possession team. They're 5-1 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs even though they have been outshot five times in six games and have controlled 43.62 percent of the shot attempts 5-on-5, the second-worst rate among the 16 teams in the postseason.

They defeated the Washington Capitals 3-2 at Verizon Center on Thursday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Second Round series even though they controlled 30.77 percent of the shot attempts 5-on-5, their worst performance of the playoffs from that perspective. They allowed the Capitals 83 shot attempts in all situations; they had 41.

Entering Game 2 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports), the question is whether they can keep winning this way. Coach Mike Sullivan would rather not find out.

 

[RELATED: Complete Capitals-Penguins series coverage]

 

"We don't want to spend as much time in our end zone as we have," Sullivan said. "We think we're at our best when we control territory, and that's something that we've been working on with our players and talking to our players about."

The Penguins won the Stanley Cup last year even though they weren't a dominant possession team during the playoffs. But they were much better than they have been this year, controlling 51.69 of the shot attempts 5-on-5.

Two important factors:

One, those Penguins had defenseman Kris Letang, who played so well that he was a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs. Letang usually logs a lot of minutes, and the Penguins usually control more than half of the shot attempts at even strength when he is on the ice. But he is out for the playoffs with a neck injury.

Two, the Penguins have played stiff competition. In the first round, they played the Columbus Blue Jackets, who finished fourth in the NHL standings and are good forechecking team. Now they are playing the Capitals, who won the Presidents' Trophy and are a good forechecking team too.

Video: Demonstrating the Penguins Defense from Game 1 vs WSH

Score effects were a factor Thursday. The game was fairly even until Penguins captain Sidney Crosby scored twice in 52 seconds early in the second period. Trailing 2-0, the Capitals pushed and ended up tying the game. The Penguins had two shots on goal in the third until center Nick Bonino scored at 12:36. Trailing 3-2, the Capitals pushed again and racked up shot attempts.

Still, it's a concern. The Penguins don't want to be giving up 35 shots on goal. They don't want to be blocking 29 shots. Especially against a team with finishers like Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, they're taking a risk with each shot attempt against.

"I give our guys credit, because I thought we defended hard," Sullivan said. "But we certainly don't want to be in a situation where we defend that much in a period. We've got to do a better job with our pushback and making sure we play on our toes."

The Penguins have to do it the length of the ice. They have to diffuse the Capitals' forecheck and break out of their zone better. They have to manage the puck better in the neutral zone. They have to make better decisions at the offensive blue line.

"Instead of making the extra move or whatever, just make sure we get it in," forward Tom Kuhnhackl said.

They have to support the puck better, so if they lose it, they can pursue it and get it back.

"I think our team is every bit as good at creating offense off of our pursuit game as we are with our possession game," Sullivan said.

They have to get pucks behind the Capitals' defense, forecheck and cycle.

"Make their 'D' work," forward Bryan Rust said.

The Penguins have the ability to beat the odds, cashing in on their opportunities, keeping their opponents from cashing in on theirs, even if the opportunities are lopsided in their opponents' favor. But here's the thing: They have the ability to increase their odds too, and it could catch up to them if they don't.

"I think we can improve in that area of the rink," Sullivan said. "I think when we do that, that's when we give ourselves the opportunity to spend time in the offensive zone, to hang on to pucks, to play to our strengths, and I think we've got to do a better job of that moving forward."

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