— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 5, 2016
After the Penguins pulled off a 5-4 shootout win over Buffalo on March 30, even the players began to support the month-long storyline that they simply lacked a sharp, stifling intensity against non-playoff contenders. They needed the high stakes of a matchup with Washington or either of the New York teams, they said with shrugs.
As the Penguins head into the last of their regular-season games against also-rans tonight, let’s look back at a few of these past “letdown” games and determine whether the narrative is more fact or fiction.
Below are the score-adjusted, all-situation shot attempt counts graphed by Hockeystats.Ca. I included both March games against New Jersey, a fringe playoff contender at the start of the month, in addition to the matchups with Buffalo, Carolina, Columbus and Calgary. (Remember that loss and the panic that ensued? Kind of funny in retrospect.)
What you’ll notice is the Penguins finished with a better Corsi count in each of the six. None of the non-playoff teams really controlled a game by that measure. However, there was some legitimacy to the “bad start against bad teams” theory. Calgary came as close as any of the opponents to legitimately outplaying the Penguins. And the March 6 meeting with the Devils certainly went back and forth for the first two periods, though the Penguins found far better success at putting the puck in the net.
After that though? The Penguins mostly just encountered teams that scored on a couple of their rare shots and went into a protective shell thereafter.
Fears about how the Penguins handle a protect-the-lead style from the opponent, even an overmatched one, probably will continue when the playoffs arrive. And shot attempts can sometimes be misleading as a measure of performance, because teams will happily clog the neutral zone and/or the area in front of their goal and allow pucks to fly from the periphery.
But what must (or at least) should bring the Penguins’ faithful some relief is that this team increasingly understands how to score off of forced turnovers and by chasing down chip-ins. While there’s a tendency to think of the Penguins’ stars dangling their way through defenses and tic-tac-toeing passing as the team’s defining moments, it’s perhaps wiser to envision the team’s plan of attack for the immediate future involving every skater, from Sidney Crosby down to Conor Sheary, looking to pressure their way to wins, just as a college basketball team might full-court press its way through March Madness.
Keep an eye on how the Penguins deal with Ottawa’s star, defenseman Erik Karlsson. If they can pester a player as offensively gifted as Karlsson into costly mistakes, there’s little reason to think the Penguins will grow any less confident about how they go about the business of generating scoring chances and shot attempts when the regular season ends this coming weekend.