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May 16, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Game 2 Tampa Bay pregame

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Let’s look at Game 2 between the Penguins and Lightning tonight from the perspective of coach Mike Sullivan’s pregame comments:

– “They have long reaches and good sticks. I think we’ve got to try to play behind them, force them to go back for pucks. If we play in front of them, maybe we play into their hands and allow them to use their reach and their stick to their advantage. Certainly that’s one aspect of our game that we have to continue to try to do in order to create that competitive advantage with our speed.”

Couple Tampa’s size on defense with their dedication to always having at least one forward back, and the Lightning often put up a wall on the blue line that is tough to crack. I think how the Penguins deal with that wall is the key factor going into tonight’s game.

– “The message was I think we have to make sure we elevate our intensity and we make sure we don’t beat ourself. Some of the chances we gave up, they were high quality and they started with our own lack of detail or some of the decisions that we made with the puck that put us in vulnerable circumstances. When our team’s been at its best for most of these playoffs, we have a much more diligent approach and we don’t give our opponents any freebies. We’ve got to make sure we force them to work for their chances and I think we’ve got to limit the quality of the chances. We didn’t give up much, but the quality of the chances we gave up was very high quality.”

This is what Sullivan said was the chief theme of his remarks to the team this morning. I thought the Penguins’ inability to create chances was more detrimental to their cause in Game 1 than the chances they gave up, but I guess they’re intertwined. Puck management, you know.

– “They have a lot of speed. Rusty can really chase down pucks. He’s very good defensively. He’s got good awareness. He’s good on the wall. But for me, he’s a guy that brings a lot of speed to any line that he plays on. He can chase down pucks. He can force turnovers. Through that, he creates opportunities.”

This is about the proposed Sheary-Crosby-Rust line. I’m not sure taking a finisher away from Crosby is the best way to get him kick-started, so I have some reservations about this combo. On the other hand, getting Victor Hedman to chase around three sub-6-footers who can skate all night might be a good idea.

– “Our six defensemen will be a game-time decision tonight. Justin Schultz is a good player. I’ve said this all along. What’s he’s brought to our team is his mobility, his ability to make a first pass, he sees the ice pretty well, he has good offensive insicntcs, he can help us on the power play, he joins the rush exptremely well. Those are all of his strengths. Those are the main reasons why our people thought he could help our team when we acquired him and he’s done that for us when he’s played. That’s the type of player that he is. That’s how he helps our team when he’s in the lineup.”

Looks like Schultz will be in for Olli Maatta. It’s counter to traditional thinking to add more skill and speed and less defensive-zone awareness to your lineup this late in the playoffs, but that’s how the Penguins have operated for a while now. This is no time to get out of character.

More after the game. Bye for now,

jb

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May 15, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Which Loss Is It Like?

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Here’s the big question, the way I see it, coming into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals tomorrow night: For the Penguins, was Game 1 a bad result or was it bad news?

To elaborate, was Game 1 a below-average performance by the Penguins that they will likely bounce back from like they have pretty much all their losses since March 1 or is there something about Tampa Bay’s personnel or style of play that is going to make life miserable for the Penguins all series long until it ends in inevitable defeat?

To try to answer that question, I decided to compare Friday night’s loss to all the Penguins’ losses since March 1. Here’s a little chart.

5/13 TB 5/7 wsh 4/28 wsh
goals 1-3 1-3 3-4
shots 35-20 31-19 45-35
corsi 43-35 50-44 66-63
sc 17-19 23-24 29-24
hdsc 7-6 6-13 10-9
4/16 nyr 4/9 phl 3/24 nj
goals 2-4 1-3 0-3
shots 31-28 19-36 39-24
corsi 37-43 36-57 58-27
sc 16-22 17-17 35-11
hdsc 8-10 8-10 13-5
3/8 nyi 3/5 cgy 3/1 wsh
goals 1-2 2-4 2-3
shots 35-27 31-30 30-37
corsi 55-42 52-36 54-44
sc 26-22 28-16 23-17
hdsc 6-5 11-7 10-11

Which of those eight losses was most similar to Game 1?

Two caught my eye: the 2-1 loss at the Islanders on March 8 and the 4-2 loss to the Rangers in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs.

The Islanders game stood out because the shots were very similar and neither team had many high-danger scoring chances. But the Rangers game really stuck out because the stats were similar and a couple of gaffes by defensemen derailed what was otherwise an OK-but-not-great performance by the Penguins.

And after reflecting on Game 1, that’s what I think we saw from the Penguins on this occasion too. A decent-but-not-outstanding performance turned into a loss by an Olli Maatta boner on the Killorn goal, a bad offensive-zone penalty by Evgeni Malkin that became a Palat PPG and a bad pinch that led to a Drouin goal on a three-on-one.

I’m not 100 percent sure the Lightning don’t have a style that is going to give the Penguins fits in perpetuity. I’m not savvy enough with Xs and Os to know whether it’s because of hustle or because of system, but the Lightning’s third forward seems to get back doggedly on D, giving the Penguins little chance to use the middle of the ice to create offense. That could be a problem throughout the series.

But if the Lightning were going to steamroll right past the Penguins, I think Game 1 would have looked like the losses to Jaroslav Halak and the Canadiens in 2010 or the conference finals losses to Boston in 2013 or the string of 2-1 losses to the Rangers last spring. It didn’t.

There was news today at practice about Olli Maatta probably being out of the lineup on defense and potentially new line combinations up front. There has been chatter from the punditry about stars scoring like stars and young goalies coming back to earth.

None of that is insignificant. Replacing Maatta seems like a good idea right about now. The road would be a lot easier for the Penguins if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin scored a few goals and Matt Murray’s save percentage was over .900, which it hasn’t been for the last three games.

But to me, a series is decided by which team imposes its game on the other. The Penguins didn’t do that in Game 1. I don’t know if they’ll be able to do so four times out of the next six games either. But after thinking about it, I don’t think it’s likely Tampa controls things from wire to wire and never lets the Penguins in it.

In other words, I think it’s going to be a series. There’s more intrigue to come.

Bye for now,

jb

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May 14, 2016
by Bill West


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“I don’t think they saw our best today.”

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Penguins coach Mike Sullivan tried not to say too much about Tampa Bay’s speed and transition abilities ahead of the Eastern Conference Final’s opener. He called them a good team with a comparable style of play and described defenseman Victor Hedman as “elite,” but he kept more substantive thoughts to himself.

After the Lightning claimed Game 1, 3-1, Sullivan offered much better analysis of what challenges Hedman and company present and why the Penguins failed to prevail.

“They have good support mechanisms in place when somebody gets beat. I thought we generated a fair amount of chances. We’ve got to find a way to convert.”

“I don’t think they saw our best today. I know this team has set a high standard for their play. I don’t think it was our best game, and that’s what we need in order to have success at this point in the season. We had stretches of some really good things. There are a lot of positives that we can pull out of this. We’ve got to do a better job of managing the puck and then being on the right side of certain puck battles. I don’t think we gave up a lot of chances, but the quality of the chances that we gave up were high. And that’s what we discussed with our players after the game. We’ve got to make better decisions with the puck in some of the key areas of the rink. I thought we had opportunities when we had the puck in the high ice in the offensive zone where we didn’t have a lot of ice to play on and where we could’ve put it down below the goal line and gone back to work. Tampa has a very good transition game. We knew that going in. We’ve got to make sure that we’re diligent with our decisions with the puck, and in those 50-50 battles, we’ve got to stay above people and stay on the right side so we don’t allow some of the odd-man rushes. I think if we cut the quality of the chance down, it gives us a better chance to win.”

“Tampa does a good job of when there’s any separation from our forecheck, they stretch the ice pretty well, so our defensemen have to be aware and make sure that we stay on the right side of people. It’s start with an awareness, but it goes beyond that to simply getting it done.”

Data tracked by @Tempofreehockey supported Sullivan’s conclusion about how the Penguins handled the puck in their offensive zone.

In closing, here’s a quick survey of the locker room for quotes regarding the Penguins’ inability to turn a decent amount of possession into goals tonight:

MATT CULLEN

“We just didn’t execute as well as we needed to. I didn’t think we were patient with the puck in their end. We threw pucks to the middle and made it easy on them getting out of their end. For us, all along, a big key has been managing the puck, being smart with the puck, making teams work to get it off you.”

SIDNEY CROSBY

“We need to be better, just understanding how they play, what it looks like. We’ve got a better feel for that. When it’s all said and done here, we’ve got another level we’ve got to get to.”

EVGENI MALKIN

“Maybe we need to play a little bit quicker in the D zone and hold pucks when we go forward.”

PATRIC HORNQVIST

“We have to find a way to grind and play a little more dirty.”

IAN COLE

“A lot of big guys. They block a lot of shots. Not just their D. Their forwards do too. Their D have a long reach and they move pretty well for being that big. We knew that coming in. That was part of the pre-scout. I think we can do a better job of exposing those guys, making them turn and trying to work them down low, because when we did, we had chances.”

“They played well. They came back. You saw a lot of forwards on their team that aren’t traditionally shot blockers or checking forwards diving in front of shots, blocking shots. They knew they had to play really strong defensively and they did that. We didn’t obviously capitalize on enough chances. That’s certainly going to be a focus going forward.”

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May 13, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Game 1 Tampa pregame

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We’ve covered a lot of angles in a short period of time leading up to Game 1 of the conference finals tonight.

The Crosby vs. Hedman matchup. The speed of the Penguins forwards vs. the size of the Tampa Bay defense. The ongoing story of Matt Murray’s rise.  The playoff success of Ben Bishop. A bunch of notes from morning skate today. Even the bet between mayors.

There’s one thing we haven’t broken down, though. It was the first meeting between these teams this season.

Back on Sept. 25, the Penguins beat the Lightning 4-2 at the Cambria County War Memorial as part of the Kraft Hockeyville celebration. I bring it up not because it has any bearing on what will happen tonight. I mean, look at the lineup the Penguins dressed.

Plotnikov-Malkin-Hornqvist
Kunitz-Cullen-Sheary
Simon-Mouillierat-Porter
Sestito-Marcantuoni-Archibald

Maatta-Clendening
Cole-Dumoulin
Gonchar-O’Neill

Murray-Zatkoff

I mention it because it’s funny how much has changed in the seven and half months since.

For instance, read this postgame quote from Portland Winterhawks coach Mike Johnston:

“For me, he’s fit in better and better every night that I see him. The thing I like about his game is he can make plays, but he’s big and strong on the puck. He hangs onto the puck down low. He protects the puck really well. There’s some chemistry there for sure.”

He’s talking about Sergei Plotnikov, who is big and strong but most definitely could not make plays.

How about this one:

“He has been a defenseman who has caught our attention every game he’s played. He’s played with poise, he’s moved the puck. He’s interesting right now. He’s shown us some things we thought we would get from him, but we weren’t really sure.”

That was Johnston on Adam Clendening, who ended up playing for, like, six teams this year.

Finally, this one:

“I haven’t really had much experience at all at the NHL level. To get one of my first starts against a lineup like that, it was pretty exhilarating for me. Those guys are some of the best in the world.”

That was Matt Murray, who, let’s say, has a little more experience at the NHL level these days.

One other note from that day: It was the day I posted my Slap Shot tour of Johnstown, which is some of the most fun I’ve ever had blogging. If you didn’t check it out then, you can do so here.

More after the game,

jb

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May 12, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Statistical preview

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I know I’m probably going to expose my own ignorance with this post and should probably just leave the statistical analysis to Bill West, but I figured I’d take a look at the Eastern Conference finals using a couple of stats I like to use to evaluate player performance, points per 60 minutes of ice time at all manpower situations and Corsi For percentage at even strength. I think they pair together pretty well to give and indication of how a player is doing.

Let’s start with the Penguins forwards:

PITFWDS

Kessel, Bonino and Hornqvist have picked up their scoring rates significantly. Hagelin hasn’t, which shows me just how good he really was in the regular season. Malkin is also remarkably consistent when it comes to point production. The fourth line has been badly out-possessed in the playoffs.

Now, the Penguins defense:

PITDEF

The fact that only Letang has a positive Corsi for percentage tells me that the Penguins’ plan to have a quick, mobile defense lead the transition game is harder to pull off in the playoffs than in the regular season. I mean, it’s working. They’re 8-3 in the playoffs. But it’s harder.

Now to the Tampa Bay forwards

TBFWDS2

Tyler Johnston is living up to his reputation as a playoff performer. Nikita Kucherov is a certified stud. Jonathan Drouin looks to be the real deal. Alex Killorn is having a great postseason, and he was particularly effective against the Penguins in the regular season. The bottom six, meanwhile, looks weak. It makes me wonder if home ice might be more important for the Penguins this round than it was in the previous two. It looks like there are some matchups that could be exploited. Like, think about the HBK line or the Malkin line against the Boyle line. Might be trouble for Tampa.

Finally, the Tampa defense:

TBDEF

Hedman is as good as it gets, but you already knew that. Stralman has owned the Penguins this season. After that, nothing jumps out at me. Again, might be fertile ground for some matchup plays. I’m guessing at these pairs because Stralman is returning from injury.

So in conclusion:

When I look at the big picture, I can’t help but think this could be another series where Sidney Crosby’s contributions won’t be best measured on the scoresheet. If his line goes out and plays the Hedman pair or the Johnson line to a stalemate, the Penguins could peck away at some potential weaknesses elsewhere.

Feel free to hit up the comments and tell me my analysis is sophomoric. I’m not an experienced stats guy, and I know this.

Bye for now,

jb

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May 11, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Game 6 Washington postgame

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Two big picture points and two small picture points come to mind after the Penguins closed out Washington tonight.

Big picture point No. 1
The Penguins are resilient.

Coach Mike Sullivan has talked about that concept pretty much since he took over, but tonight’s display was something else.

This team blew a three-goal lead, took three delay of game minors in a span of 2:02 in the third period and won in overtime anyway. That’s some kind of resiliency.

“You definitely don’t draw it up that way,” Sidney Crosby said. “There were some anxious moments there in the last 12 minutes of the game. I haven’t seen back-to-back delay of games over the glass, let alone three. Just some bad bounces. We handled it well. We obviously had to kill that other one that Tanger ended up getting with a couple minutes left in a tie game. So we showed a lot of poise to kill that one off and just get some time to come in here and regroup. I thought in overtime, we carried the play. We wanted it, and I thought we bounced back, considering what happened.”

Big picture point No. 2
The Penguins can win a series without significant offensive contributions from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

I’m a firm believer that Crosby and Malkin played important roles in this series. They ate up the toughest minutes against Washington’s top players. They drove possession in most cases.

But Crosby has no goals and two assists and Malkin had one goal and one assist and the Penguins won anyway.

I’m not sure if the Penguins made a concerted effort on the organizational level to create a roster that could thrive without their top two players scoring, but they did.

Sullivan didn’t talk about that specifically after the game, but he sort of alluded to it.

“When we have the balance the way we do, I think it presents matchup challenges for our opponents. Sid’s line gets a lot of the top defense pair or one of the top lines. Geno’s line usually gets one as well. I think Bones’ line, that line as a whole, is a really good line. They present a matchup challenge when that type of situation presents itself. That’s one of the things, as coaching staff, that we like about the make-up of our four lines the way we have them right now.”

Small picture point No. 1
Those delay of game penalties. Are you kidding me?

You could watch hockey games for 100 years and not see a team commit three delay of game penalties for clearing pucks over the glass in a span of 2:02. You could watch for another 100 years and not see a team do that and somehow win the game anyway.

But that’s what the Penguins did.

I’ve been on record for years saying I think it’s a horrible rule. At the very least, it needs to be amended to not include pucks batted out of midair.

Small picture point No. 2
The Bonino line dominated.

At even strength, the matchups went, for the most part, like this: Crosby against the Backstrom line, Malkin against the Kuznetsov-Ovechkin line and Bonino against the line of Justin Williams, Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera.

If you look at the possession numbers — as well as the goals that were scored — Bonino’s line owned Beagle’s line. It was probably the difference in the game.

It was also another chance to break out the “cerebral assassin” nickname that Bill West gave Bonino.

“Bones is a really good player,” Sullivan said. “We use him in a lot of key situations. I’ve said on a number of occasions that he’s a cerebral guy. He really sees the game really well on both sides of the puck.”

Bye for now,

jb

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May 10, 2016
by Bill West


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Frustrated by Sid and Geno, eh?

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After about a week of build-up, the avalanche of criticism about Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s performances in the Penguins’ second-round series against Washington finally came rumbling down media mountain on Monday night and Tuesday morning (after coach Mike Sullivan was kind enough to remove the Marc-Andre Fleury/Matt Murray debate from the menu).

Let’s be clear about a few things: Sullivan is correct that Crosby and Malkin are playing better than their limited scoring production suggests. They’ve been central to the Penguins’ puck possession efforts. The lines centered by Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen delivered some notable goals in this series, but they’ve spent more time and energy in front of Matt Murray than near Captials netminder Braden Holtby. Over the course of multiple games, that’s a losing proposition.

Those who wish to criticize Crosby and Malkin would be wise to look beyond scoring production, which is notoriously unpredictable in a small sample size (like a playoff series). Many fancy stats portray the star centers in a better light than their point totals, but not all.

Crosby Malkin series WOI

Check out War-on-Ice.com’s score-adjusted for five-on-five play in this series. If you’re not familiar with War-on-Ice or with hockey’s advanced metrics in general, here’s a fairly simple guide: Almost any stat that ends in “F” — like SF, CF, FF, SCF, GF — represents “For,” as in what the Penguins did while that player was on the ice in this series. Almost any stat that ends in “A” — SA, CA, FA, SCA, GA — represents “Against,” as in what the Penguins allowed while that player was on the ice. So even if you don’t know the difference between a shot, a Corsi, a Fenwick and a scoring chance, you can understand that ideally a player is doing well if the Penguins have more “For” than “Against” while that individual is on the ice.

The yellow arrows on the chart (inserted by me using MS Paint…third-grade quality work at best) identify what I regard as stats deserving of criticism, if one must do so with Crosby and Malkin.

You’ll notice Malkin’s “For” versus “Against” stats are mostly favorable. Scoring chances with Malkin on the ice, however, have a negative differential. That likely indicates that while he and his linemates are getting pucks to the net or at least attempting to, they’re not necessarily doing it from the slot area, which is where War-on-Ice and most other sites track scoring chances.

Crosby, meanwhile, leaves something to be desired with his individual shot outcomes. He has missed the net with eight shot attempts, most on the team. He’s also taken just four shots in five-on-five play that Holtby saved, which ranks well below the Penguins’ other skilled shooters. So Crosby clearly is trying to shoot, but he’s struggling to force Holtby to make stops.

Sid Geno indy ratesCrosby Malkin indy rates WSH

I delved a little deeper into Crosby (and Malkin’s) individual shooting tendencies in this series on www.Corsica.hockey and compared the five-on-five data to what each did during the regular season. The numbers confirm the conclusion draw from the War-on-Ice data: Crosby’s greatest failing against Washington in this series is his inability to accurately shoot through traffic. He was about twice as good at getting pucks to the net in five-on-five play during the regular season.

Tonight’s game could wildly change all of these numbers. That’s the thing about small sample sizes — one new wave of data can alter everything. But at least through five games, it’s clear that Crosby and Malkin aren’t the underachievers their point totals suggest, but they are deserving of a little scrutiny.

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May 10, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Game 6 Washington pregame

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Panic.

It’s a concept worth thinking about heading into Game 6 of a playoff series tonight.

I know there are fans that are panicking after the Penguins lost Game 5 Saturday night.

They saw Alex Ovechkin bombing one-timers in Game 5 and they didn’t see Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin answering with goals of their own. They saw the Penguins blow a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers just two springs ago.

They know that if the Penguins lose tonight, they’ll be walking into a snake pit in Washington for Game 7 on a two-game losing streak.

This has been a terribly even series, whether you measure by games, goals or possession stats, but that can’t be any consolation for fans who are panicking. Quite the opposite, actually. If both teams play like they have in the first five games, it’s probably going to come down to a break here or a break there.

That’s not a comforting thought for a fan who has an emotional investment in this series. So by all means, panic away.

The bigger question, though, is whether anyone who actually has an impact on the outcome of the games — beyond wearing the same socks and sitting on the same couch cushion as you did for Games 3 and 4 — is panicking.

In the Penguins locker room, I see no evidence of that.

Matt Cullen might be less prone to panic than others, given his experience level, but his comments after morning skate seem to be pretty indicative of the mood of the room.

“We’re excited. It’s another opportunity here. We came pretty close last time to closing it out. It’s not easy. They’re a good team. Everyone expected it to be a tight series and every game has been awfully tight. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”

A more interesting study is in the coach’s office.

Mike Sullivan, as far as his personality is concerned, doesn’t seem to be the type who is prone to panic. He’s more likely to get ticked off by a loss than rattled by one.

But that line juggling in Game 5? That could be interpreted as panicky.

Shake up each and every combination, essentially benching your leading postseason goal scorer in Patric Hornqvist in the process? I understand the motivation. Find lightning in a line combination that produces just one goal and it changes the complexion of the game. But let’s face it. It’s a little less than steely.

Sullivan has done similar things already in these playoffs. He pulled out the bingo hopper in Game 2 against the Rangers. He sat Malkin down for long stretches while protecting a lead in the third period of Game 3.

It worked out fine, of course, but he followed that up with calming the personnel shake-ups down for Games 4 and 5 as the Penguins pulled away and finished the series. A similar approach might be a good idea tonight.

Yesterday, Sullivan took one big step away from the panic button when he announced Matt Murray would be starting tonight.

It’s the kind of decision, emphasized by announcing it a day ahead of time, that instills confidence in a team. The message is, “Play like you have been, with the same goalie behind you, and you’ll be fine.”

Like I wrote before, it’s been a very even series. I’m not sure a coach conveying a sense of calm to his team will make much of a difference or way or the other. But I guess it can’t hurt.

More after the game.

Bye for now,

jb

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May 8, 2016
by Bill West


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Now who’s unlucky?

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After three straight games in which the Washington Capitals argued they played well enough to deserve a win — and had some evidence to support the claim —  it became the Penguins’ turn to embrace that way of thinking on Saturday following a 3-1 loss at the Verizon Center.

“I don’t think we sat back, and I don’t think we took anything for granted,” Sidney Crosby said. “We generated some good chances. That’s playoff hockey. Sometimes you play well and lose. I thought for the most part, we did a lot of good things. Unfortunately they capitalized on a couple mistakes.”

A metric known as expected goals (xG) certainly thought the Penguins played better than the result suggested. Check out the graphic from www.corsica.hockey, which displays the Penguins in blue and the Capitals in red. Pens Caps Game 5 xG

The sentiments shared by Crosby reflected what many of the Penguins believed about the loss. And coach Mike Sullivan, certainly more likely than his players to get critical of things when necessary, refused to change the tune.

“I think for long stretches of the game we were the better team,” Sullivan said. “I thought we had the puck more. I thought we controlled territory. I thought five-on-five our play was pretty strong. … Our penalty kill, we couldn’t seem the win the first faceoff. When you get that first clear, I think that’s when our penalty kill has an opportunity to be at its best, and we couldn’t seem to get that first faceoff win. And as a result, they got some zone time. But give them credit, they made a couple of good plays. But for long stretches of the game, I really liked our game. I liked our team. I thought we were moving the puck. I thought we were playing fast. Listen, they’re a good team. We’re a good team. This is a pretty close series. We knew this series wasn’t going to be easy going in.”

Brian Dumoulin likely became the goat of the game in many Penguins fans’ eyes because of his defensive-zone giveaway. And make no mistake, it was ugly.

But a bevy of teammates, not to mention Sullivan, came to his defense.

“They were able to get a goal off a turnover but they forced it with a heavy slash as Brian was making the correct pass,” Ben Lovejoy said.

“Brian has played a lot of great hockey for us,” Sullivan said. “When you play as many minutes as he’s played, and you’re playing against top players, you’re not going to play a perfect game. I’m sure he’d like to have that one back, but we have to find a way as a group to recover.”

Just like the Capitals after Game 2, 3 and 4, the Penguins promised to clean up the costly miscues ahead of Tuesday’s Game 6. And they’ll certainly need to, because this series has been even closer than the scores and series record indicate. Even if you don’t understand the many numbers listed in the Corsica screen grab, you only need to realize how many of the figures are comparable to appreciate the even nature of the series. Only goals, perhaps the most unpredictable stat in hockey, differ considerably.Pens Caps thru 4 games

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May 7, 2016
by Bill West


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Penguins & the psychology of success

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In all likelihood, regardless of how Saturday night’s Game 5 between with the Washington Capitals ends, the Penguins’ psyche will emerge as a topic of discussion in the aftermath.

Win, and talking heads will commend the Penguins for their ability to put away the NHL’s top regular-season team on the road.

Lose, and questions will likely arise about whether the Penguins are still somehow haunted by their recent postseason disappointments.

Earlier this week, a story in the Trib attempted to explore how the Penguins moved past their “fragile” phase and became “resilient,” to steal two terms often used by coach Mike Sullivan.

For Sullivan and the Penguins to say their mentality changed is fine. Results certainly suggest the team better at dealing with all kinds of circumstances, both good and bad. But I wanted a third-party perspective from someone with psychology expertise.

Enter Aimee Kimball, a prominent Pittsburgh-based mental training consultant with a Ph.D in sports psychology.

Below are her remarks on the topics of molding a team’s mindset and restoring its confidence. What intrigued me most about her input was how much it aligned with what Sullivan has said and done since taking over on Dec. 12. At this point, there’s a pretty strong consensus that Sullivan is a smart man whose intelligence extends beyond player deployment and scheme adjustments. Kimball’s explanations affirmed for me that Sullivan speaks as a coach who has studied the best ways to communicate and connect with those he leads, and not as a former player or jock type who fixates on grit and heart, though he values those intangibles.

Kimball on moving a team from fragility to resiliency: “Generally speaking, a coach, when they want to build up the resiliency and mental toughness of a team, it’s about creating the culture to do so. A lot of that is how they communicate with players. They make the players feel like they are a part of this team, and they contribute to it. And really getting the players to be competitive. To me, when I’m working with teams or individuals, it’s really talking about what competitiveness is, and that’s playing to win or playing to do your best rather than playing not to lose or trying to avoid mistakes. I think a lot of times athletes of any age get caught up in, ‘I just don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want to lose.’ So they play very tentatively. But when you’re looking at building the confidence of a team and building a culture of success, it has more to do with focusing on going out there and doing everything you can to win. A lot of players, when they start to lose confidence, it’s because they’re almost playing out of fear instead of playing out of passion.”

On pushing players to think about “playing the right way” without causing paralysis through analysis: “You want athletes to be able to strategize and be able to think about the game before their game. But when they play, you don’t want them overthinking. You want them to be able to shut that off and play more with just their intelligence, their knowledge of the sport. Because if they’ve trained the right way and prepared the right way, they shouldn’t need to think about it (actively). They should be able to just go out there and do it. You want them to prepare and work and study the film and have done the training and know the strategy so that it’s all there in their filing cabinet. But when they get out on the court or the field or the ice, they just put that to use. … You never want to be so emotional or so thought out. You want to pay attention to details at the right time and the right place, but you don’t want to overthink it so much that you’re a robot. Very few sports are so slow-paced where you have that.”

On how the Penguins might’ve become “fragile” in the first place: “What tends to happen is athletes are focusing on the wrong things. They’ll focus on the crowds, the situations or the playing time. So it’s not necessarily that they don’t believe they’re good enough. Their focus has just shifted away from how good to they are to, ‘What if?’ They’re thinking about things that aren’t task-specific. Their playing time, the crowd, the playoffs — these things don’t matter unless they make it matter.”

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