And within the span of two games, the tables have turned in this Stanley Cup finals. Honestly, I haven’t found this series to be any more enticing as the NBA finals. Sure, all the shenanigans from Nashville’s side have been beautiful to watch and a true breath of fresh air to see. But say what you want about agreeing with Charles Barkley: there just hasn’t been a single game between Pittsburgh and the Predators that has gone down to the wire from start to finish in this entire series except maybe Game 1. Even that circumstance came after Nashville was down 3-0 coming into the second period. Otherwise, we have seen blowout after blowout with each team hoping that their goalie stands tall when counted upon.
After having Matt Murray save Pittsburgh’s bacon in the first two games, Nashville finally broke him when the series was taken to their home rink. In 64 shots in the first two games, Murray gave up only four goals. In the next 59 shots on goal, he gave up nine. These are dark times for someone who should be already considered one of the best goaltenders in the league.
Murray still has just 62 career regular season games under his belt, but he has recorded a career quality start percentage that is still above 60% in both the regular season and postseason and is still just 23-years old. I have explained previously how his relative numbers in junior were a solid enough indication that his current numbers are not a fluke and it would be shocking if he horrifically regresses. At the very least, that’s why it will be amazing if Murray continues to be bad throughout the rest of these playoffs. Only a re-aggravation from his injury that he picked up during the very first warm-up of the postseason can explain such a circumstance.
As for Pittsburgh’s defense, it has been a known fact all year, even with Kris Letang on the team, that they have been miserable. They were 24th in the NHL in un-adjusted shot attempts against per hour while at even strength at 57.5 and that number has only changed to 59.6 in the playoffs. It’s really the offense that has staggeringly worsened as the shot generation has dwindled from an eighth best 57.8 attempts per hour to 51.0 during the postseason.
Evgeni Malkin, in particular, has been an unmitigated disaster. Despite having two goals, he has only been on the ice for an average of 33.8 shot attempts for per hour. This is considering that last Monday, Malkin’s most common defense pair that he played with was Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley. When Maatta has played with Malkin this postseason, the two have only seen 46.1% of their shot attempts go in their favor. Meanwhile, Malkin has seen 51.8% of his shot attempts go in his favor when playing with Justin Schultz. More of the Schultz-Cole pair for him please.
Also, it might be time to see a little Mark Streit get some playing time for once. Last time I checked, he was one of Philadelphia’s most dependable defensemen before being (eventually) traded to the Pens. Yet somehow, the 38-year old has only played three playoff games this year and was considered a lesser option than pokemon-in-training Chad Ruhwedel. It is beyond obvious how poorly Pittsburgh has struggled getting the puck out of their zone, you would have thought you were seeing the postseason edition of the Washington Capitals instead.
On the other side of things, Nashville’s top line of Filip Forsberg, Pontus Aberg and Colton Sissons with P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm might as well be the most dominating quintet in the postseason. All five of them are experiencing over 60% puck possession this series and are making players like Malkin, Maatta, Daley and Patric Hornqvist look like Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. Now that the Penguins have last change, I would stop at nothing at having Sidney Crosby attack this group.
During this series, Crosby’s most common opponents have amazingly been the Ryan Ellis-Mattias Ekholm pair (over 38 even strength minutes) and Nashville’s second line of Viktor Arvidsson, Mike Fisher and James Neal. Meanwhile, you have to look at him playing between 16 and 18 minutes of even strength ice time against Nashville’s aforementioned true lineup of death. Why would this ever be acceptable if you’re a Penguins fan?!?!? Last time we checked, he’s Sidney Crosby. The greatest player of his era should be playing against the best players every single shift under any circumstances.
Pittsburgh’s cards are really not on their side thanks to so many players being injured and out of form, but it’s not like this is an impossible task for them to win the Stanley Cup. Moneypuck.com has the Penguins trailing in total expected goals 8.6-10.8 while the actual total has been 11-13. They have been slightly snake-bitten on the penalty kill as the Predators have scored on four of their 16 tries when the really should have scored on 2.6 of those occasions. That being said, their power play has been in shackles this series scoring once and 1.8 times in actual and expected goals, respectively, in their 16 attempts.
Streit will be a major help on the man advantage. Play him instead of Maatta, a young defenseman that really has struggled to live up to his massive potential of late, and put Malkin and Crosby in significantly more advantageous situations and the Penguins might see themselves in a different light in these Finals than they have been this past six days.