2017 NHL Playoffs Primer #1: Pens vs Jackets

Photo Credit: Kirk Irwin

By Scott Rosenhek

I am going to using a variety of statistics to build a case for my predictions. I will also place more emphasis on even strength stats (5 on 5) as power plays are variable and not as reliable in ultimately predicting wins. Any stats per 60 minutes will be used to normalize overtime games. Here are some definitions for the abbreviations I will be using.

CF/CA/CF% (corsi for, against and percent; corsi is the sum of all shots, including those that are block and those miss the goal; the percentage is CF divided by CF+CA)

FF/FA/FF% (fenwick for, against and percent; similar to corsi, except fenwick excludes blocked shots; some argue this has a stronger correlation with scoring chances)

GF/GA/GF% (goals for, against and percentage)

Stats sourced from http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com/index.php and www.sportingcharts.com

Ladies and gentlemen! This is first round match-up we have been waiting for. Two titans from the mighty Metropolitan Division will clash! The second divisional seed Pittsburgh Penguins are taking on the third seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.

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Via Giphy

No, not those Titans. You will have your day Tennessee, but not yet.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins went 50-21-11 this season, earning 111 points and good for 2nd in the league. Pittsburgh ranks first in goals for, with 185 even strength goals for with a GF% of 55.2% (fourth in the league). The team also has the highest even strength GF/60 with 2.81. This is a good indicator of the elite goal scoring for the lads in black and yellow.

The Penguins have a CF% of 50.1 (16th in the league), meaning they are just barely over even in terms of shot possession. However, Pittsburgh makes a substantial number of attempts as they have a CF/60 57.8. This means that the team averages about 58 shot events (recorded shots, misses and blocked shots) in that time. The caveat with this is that they surrender roughly the same number of events per 60 minutes.

I did say that I wanted to shift my focus away from special teams as power plays do not occur consistently from game to game, especially in the playoffs. Regardless, I do want to note that Pittsburgh is tied with Washington for the third best power play in the league at 23.1%. Furthermore, the Penguins are second in the league this year in power play goals scored with 60.

What is a little more troubling is the penalty kill. The penguins are ranked 20th in the league with a PK% of 79.8. There is no guarantee that Columbus will always capitalize on the power play, but if Pittsburgh gets into penalty trouble, this could be an issue in the series.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets went 50-24-8, finishing just behind the Penguins with 108 points. Columbus has the 6th best even strength offensive output, but does have a higher GF% than Pittsburgh at 55.9%. Even though Columbus had scored fewer goals, they also surrendered fewer goals than the Penguins.

John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets have a similar Corsi For percentage at 50.3. What is important to note is that the team’s CF/60 is 55.8. This means that Columbus is producing shots towards the net at a slightly lower rate than the Penguins. This also means that the team is surrendering fewer attempts as well.

Columbus has the 12th ranked power play, clocking in at 19.9%. Due to the Penguins’ struggles on the penalty kill, the Blue Jackets would be wise to make the most out of any power plays that they receive in this series. The Blue Jackets also have surrendered the fewest number of shorthanded goals on the power play with 2 and have scored the 6th most shorthanded goals (8).

Another noteworthy point is the fact that the Blue Jackets have the 9th ranked penalty kill in the league. There is the possibility that Columbus may be able to contain Crosby’s power play, making life difficult for the penguins. But, the Blue Jackets only scored 42 power play goals in the regular season (23rd in the league).

The Players

One monumental strength of the penguins is their forward group. The Columbus Blue Jackets will have their work cut out for them as Pittsburgh will be rolling out three deadly lines. The Penguins’ three-pronged attack will require line matching for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the now legendary HBK line of Carl Hagelin (assuming he is healthy), Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel.

Crosby led the league this year with 44 goals and finished the regular season with 89 points. The Penguins captain has 137 points in 124 career playoff game and is determined to go back to back, a feat that has not been accomplished in the cap era.

Evgeni Malkin had 33 goals and 72 points this year and Phil Kessel still looks elite with a 70-point season. Pittsburgh is going to rely on their elite players to do much of the heavy lifting with their depth to complement the group. However, keep on an eye on Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel. They lead the penguins in even strength point production rates with 3.01 and 2.88 points per 60 minutes, respectively.

Columbus has a forward group that has been very successful this year. Although they only have one 30+ goal scorer in Cam Atkinson, the team is scoring by committee. The Blue Jackets have spread the offense around, allowing players such as Scott Hartnell and Sam Gagner to shine once again.

There are many offensive weapons at the team’s disposal, but a major weakness for the Penguins will be on defence. Losing Kris Letang late in the season is going to be a seriously blow to their playoff push. With all due respect to Ian Cole and Justin Schultz, they are not number one defencemen.

Since Columbus is spreading the offense around, Seth Jones and underrated rookie defencemen Zach Werenski have had fantastic seasons. Jones has scored 12 goals and Werenski has scored 11. With Jack Johnson and David Savard rounding out their top 4, Columbus clearly has the advantage in defence over the Penguins.

This is where Columbus needs to take full advantage of the penguins. If they can overwhelm the depleted Penguins D corps, they could make life very hard for Matthew Murray. Speaking of Murray, his goaltending battle with Sergei Bobrovsky will prove to be a formidable challenge.

Murray has a .923 save percentage with a 2.41 GAA (good for 7th and 15th in the league respectively). Sergei Bobrovsky is the number one goaltender in both categories. I am giving the edge to Bobrovsky in this match-up.

The Coaches

The defending champs, led by bench boss Mike Sullivan will take on John Tortorella’s impressive team. It is almost fitting how these two coaches shared the spots behind the bench in Vancouver a few years ago and now have the chance to face each other today. Each coach has a Stanley Cup to their name, making the match-up more interesting.

One advantage of having both coaches in Vancouver was giving me a lot of game footage to understand the tendencies of their coaching style. John Tortorella has no shame in pushing his shot-blocking mantra. The stats reflect that in his defensive system.

The Blue Jackets have a CA/60 of 55.2 and a FA/60 of 40.9. This means that the team blocks about 14 shots every hour. Pittsburgh will be taking many shot attempts, but will have to deal with the high rate of shot blocking.

Mike Sullivan’s team has a CA/60 of 57.5 and a FA/60 of 41.5. It is not surprising that Sullivan preaches a similar style in the defensive side of his system. What is interesting is the fact that at even strength, the Penguins were able to block 2 more shots per hour than the Blue Jackets.

Who do I think will win the series?

This series is going to come down to the wire. The teams are very closely matched in their underlying metrics and operate similar defensive systems. However, Pittsburgh will be relying on their elite talent to make up their deficiencies on defence.

Columbus may not have a Sidney Crosby or an Evgeni Malkin, but collectively, they have shown that they can hold their own and drive offensive play. They have the edge in defence and goaltending, so I will make a bold statement here that would make even Doug MacLean proud:

I predict the Columbus Blue Jackets will win the series in 7 games.

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