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The Penguins are the luckiest hockey team in the world, but there’s more to it

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Monday night was a microcosm of the Pens’ playoff run.

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game One Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins are the luckiest team in hockey. I’m a fan, and I freely concede that much. That’s been true historically, like when some of the worst teams in Penguins history yielded Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby in the draft. It’s been true in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, too, with the Pens overcoming massive shot attempt deficits as a matter of routine practice and winning anyway.

In that regard, they’ve never been luckier than on Monday night. In Game 1 of the Cup Final against Nashville, the Penguins went an obscene 37 minutes without a shot on goal — until the first one since the first period, a rising Jake Guentzel wrister, beat Pekka Rinne and won the game with 3:17 left to play. The Pens won, 5-3, after Nick Bonino added an empty-net goal a few minutes later. The series is 1-0.

It’s not unheard of to win a playoff game with fewer than 13 shots on goal, but in this era, it might as well be. The Penguins’ win on Monday was the fifth time since the turn of the millennium that a team has failed to get 13 shots on target and still won a playoff game — and the first in a Cup Final in that span. The last time it happened in a Final was in 1960.

It’s difficult to oversell how badly the Predators mashed the Penguins on Monday. The Pens had previously not gone one period in franchise playoff history without a shot on goal. In this one, they went almost two. The flow of play wasn’t quite that lopsided, but it was close enough. Nashville took 58 percent of the game’s five-on-five shot attempts. All but Sidney Crosby’s line and the Pens’ “top defense pairing” — air quotes very much intentional — of Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey spent more time playing defense than offense.

And the Penguins won by two goals. This instance was the most dramatic, but it continued a high-wire act that’s lasted most of these playoffs. The Penguins have controlled 47 percent of the even-strength shot attempts throughout their run, including some dramatic splits against the Blue Jackets and Capitals before this series.

When the Pens won the Cup last year, they controlled 52 percent of such attempts during the playoffs. The year before that, the champion Blackhawks controlled 51 percent. The year before that, the Kings were at 54 percent. The few champions before then were at 56, 52, and 50 percent. Shot attempts are a measure of possession, and they suggest you don’t have to be the best possession team to win it all. But they say you have to break even, at least, and the Penguins are definitely not breaking even.

The Penguins are getting lucky, but I think they’re well suited to get lucky.

It might turn out that this is all a charade. The Penguins’ tendency to get outplayed at even strength could catch up with them in any of six potential remaining games. Nashville, the better team by so much on Monday, could find a way to win four of the next six and take a Cup refill away from the Penguins.

But the Penguins have a few things that should help them:

  • An elite goaltender. After an injury to Matt Murray during warmups in the playoffs’ first game, Marc-Andre Fleury got the Penguins to the Final. He was the biggest reason they beat Washington despite being summarily outplayed. But Murray reclaimed the net after Game 3 of the conference final against Ottawa, and it’s been a good move. In his six games, Murray’s been the best netminder in the playoffs. He has a .936 save percentage and a 1.62 goals against average, both the best among all goalies who’ve suited up for more than a single game. That helps make up a shot attempt gap.
  • A bunch of finishers. The Penguins had 278 goals in the regular season, 15 more than anyone else in the league. They scored those despite finishing 16th out of 30 teams in Corsi For Percentage, the measurement of even-strength shot attempts. It’s not like it’s a new thing for the Penguins to be efficient with their shots. Their team shooting percentage in the regular season was 10.1 percent, against a league average of 9 percent. They’ve upped the ante in the playoffs, with 10.8 percent of their shots going in. That’s not sustainable for long, but for a few weeks? Well, it has been so far.
  • An excellent power play. The Penguins’ power play has clicked at better than 25 percent in the playoffs, second-best in the league (and the best outside of Calgary, which got swept in the first round.) Power plays are the best time to get a good look at the net, and the Pens have taken advantage often. They have 15 power play goals, nearly a quarter of all the pucks they’ve potted during this run.

The Pens really are fortunate, but they’ve positioned themselves well.

I’m not trying to be naive. Getting outplayed so often at five-on-five and still winning another Cup would be hard to fathom if it weren’t so close to reality.

If the playoffs started again today, the Penguins might not get out of the first round. They’re missing their best defenseman, Kris Letang, and look entirely out of gas. But they’ve got a few good traits, and those good traits are the kind that make it plausible to win in this climate.

The Penguins might not be that good. But if they win three more games, who cares?