After spending most of the first half of the season dealing with a steady stream of injuries, the Pittsburgh Penguins are finally starting to work their way back to full strength.
Paul Martin is back. James Neal is back. Evgeni Malkin is back. Kris Letang is back.
Their return, particularly when it comes to the latter two, has been met with mixed results. The team has continued to win games, but it's fair to say they probably have not played their best hockey over the past couple of weeks. They have had some lapses defensively and probably given up more goals than they would like. Following a 4-3 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers earlier this month defenseman Rob Scuderi was critical of the way the team played and compared them to the Harlem Globetrotters.
"If you're going to try and play hockey like the Harlem Globetrotters, you're going to get burned," Scuderi said after the Jan. 10 game in Edmonton. "We continue to make the same mistakes, go for the same highlight reel plays. That might look good on the highlight reels every now and then, but it's not a formula for winning."
After their 5-1 blowout loss to the Florida Panthers on Monday, the focus seemed to be on the returns of Malkin and Letang since the Penguins had allowed 23 goals in the six games since they've been back in the lineup.
(I think it is worth pointing out that even though those two have had some missteps recently, that over the past six games Crosby, Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, and Chris Kunitz have all been on the ice for more goals against than Malkin and Letang, while mostly avoiding the same criticism.)
Are the Penguins too fancy for their own good? And do they really have more problems defensively when they're completely healthy?
Hard to deny that the Penguins' goals against skyrockets when they are completely healthy. We've seen it four seasons in a row. Undeniable.— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_Trib) January 21, 2014
The Penguins, like most teams in the NHL, are rarely completely healthy, but for the purposes of this exercise I'm just going to look at it when they have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang -- their three best and most talented players -- in the lineup at the same time, a luxury they have had in just 97 of their 261 regular season games the past four years.
Usually it's just two of them in the lineup. Sometimes it's one or zero.
The table below shows their goals against per game with each roster on the ice.
|Year||0-1 in lineup||2 in lineup||all 3 in lineup|
|Four year average||2.5||2.4||2.6|
When all three are in the lineup they do give up more goals than they do when one or two are out of the lineup. But the jump isn't huge. Over the course of an 82-game season you're talking about an additional 17 goals against when all three are in the lineup versus when one of them is out. When two are out it's even smaller. Assuming the exact same offensive output, that might cost you a couple of points (probably two or three) in the standings.
But the offensive output isn't the same, and that makes a big difference.
Same idea as above, only this time we're looking at goals scored.
|Year||0-1 in lineup||2 in lineup||3 in lineup|
|Four year Average||2.9||3.0||3.6|
While they give up an additional 17 goals per 82 games with their three big guns in the lineup, they score an additional 50, which seems like it should be a pretty good trade off.
And this where hockey thinking sometimes tends to lose its way. This is seen as bad hockey in the NHL and not winning hockey. The Washington Capitals ran into this same thing a few years ago when they winning games 6-3 every night and playing a wildly entertaining run-and-gun style.
This would sometimes draw intense criticism from analysts and players around the league. It wasn't tough enough. They weren't good enough defensively. It wasn't PLAYOFF HOCKEY. That intensified in the spring of 2010 when the Presidents' Trophy winning Capitals were ousted in the first-round by Montreal's Jaroslav Halak -- he single handedly stole that best-of-seven series -- and had people around the league believing a team that had won more games than anybody else in the league was doing something wrong and had to change the way it played before it could take the next step.
The Capitals seemed to buy into that. So they changed. They changed their style of play. They changed the makeup of their roster. They eventually changed their coach when they fired Bruce Boudreau.
It could very easily be argued that they ended up taking it too far in the opposite direction, reaching their nadir with the Dale Hunter experience in the second half of the 2011-12 season (Boudreau, meanwhile, has the Anaheim Ducks flourishing in the Western Conference).
Had they kept doing what they were doing they probably would have been closer to a Stanley Cup at some point over the past two years than they have been. I still believe that had they beaten Pittsburgh in the 2009 playoffs they would have won the Stanley Cup -- they would have steamrolled the same Carolina team that Pittsburgh swept in the Conference Finals and they were a fine matchup for the Red Wings in the final that year.
Players like Crosby, Malkin, and Letang (and Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom if you're still on the Capitals comparison) are highly skilled, creative individuals. They're also risk-takers. Whether it be in the form of a pinch and attempt to jump into the play (Letang) or going for a highlight reel pass (any of them) or trying to run the gauntlet and beat three defenders by themselves, they are going to take their chances.
That's part of what makes them great. You can't limit that and take it away from them. When you have that type of player they are going to play a lot of minutes and they are going to have the puck on their stick as often as possible. Sometimes those risks don't work and mistakes get made. When those players make mistakes, they look bad. They look like sloppy hockey and players trying to do too much.
But when those plays connect, it's magic. And the plays that connect far outweigh the mistakes (which is why when the Penguins are fully healthy they do give up a few more goals, but they also score twice as many as they give up).
There is no magic formula or system when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup. Every year we think we have it figured out when the latest team hoists the Cup and they are anointed as the geniuses that have the system everyone else should emulate. This is mostly nonsense.
Winning teams do one thing well: They control the puck more than their opponents (which leads to them outscoring their opponent and winning more games). But how they go about doing that varies.
Some teams do it by slowing the game down and playing a tighter, low-event style (the current St. Louis Blues, the old Jacques Lemaire Devils) and wait for their one or two chances to strike. Other teams do it by playing laying a more fast-paced, up-tempo game (Pittsburgh, the Boudreau Capitals, I think even the current Chicago Blackhawks fit this mold a little).
Over the years the NHL has seen both types of teams win.
Just because the Penguins' style hasn't resulted in another Stanley Cup over the past four years doesn't necessarily mean they're doing something wrong. Especially since three of their past four playoff exits have had more to do with a lack of scoring (18 goals in seven games against the same Jaroslov Halak that shut down Washington in 2010, 14 goals in seven games against Tampa Bay in 2011, three goals in four games against Boston in 2013) than their inability to prevent goals.
We love to overreact to short-term results, whether it be hot streaks or cold streaks, and think that something needs to be done about those results. But knee-jerk reactions in those situations can sometimes do a lot more harm than good.
The Penguins are a flawed team that needs some work around the edges (just look at their third-and fourth-lines on a given night), but as long as they allow their best players to be themselves and play their game, they're going to have a chance.
One six-game stretch where they gave up some goals that also happened to coincide with the return of two star players should not change that.