The Pittsburgh Penguins lost in the first round because of their one-dimensional play. Partially this was the result of injuries, but a portion of blame goes to the roster construction. They were a stark contrast to the Rangers, possibly the most versatile team in the NHL. By definition, versatility is the ability to adapt to many changing demands. When every game in a hockey series is decided by one goal, personnel flexibility is significant.
The Penguins lived and died by their forecheck
The Penguins identified the forecheck as essential to their success for two reasons. First, the postseason iteration of Pittsburgh was helpless on the rush. Only the Penguins’ forwards were engaged in the attack, and on many sequences the result was a turnover that led to a quick Rangers counterattack. The Penguins’ defensemen did not join the rush, so their forwards in transition often faced a forest of Rangers skaters because of New York’s relentless back pressure.
The second reason, and likely why it took Pittsburgh until late in the series to ratchet up its defensemen’s aggression, was the potent speed and transition game of the Rangers. By keeping the puck in the offensive zone, the Penguins were attempting to keep the lid on New York’s explosiveness.
Pittsburgh’s dependence on a forward-driven cycle had mixed results in a series in which they packed four 2-1 losses around a 4-3 win in Game 2. The Penguins finished the series with the edge in Corsi for percentage at even strength by a margin of 51.4 to 48.6, per war-on-ice.com. “Corsi for percentage” measures each team’s share of the total shot attempts (on goal, blocked or missed) and is thought to imply possession — the more teams possess the puck, the more attempts they make on net. Possession, by its nature, implies control of the game because teams have a limited number of ways to score if they do not have the puck.
Yet, Evgeni Malkin failed to record any points, the bottom-six forwards were a nonfactor unless they were playing with Sidney Crosby or Malkin, and virtually all of the Penguins’ even-strength goals came against the Rangers’ third or fourth lines.
The Penguins got a first-rate goaltending effort from Marc-Andre Fleury, which helped them stay competitive. But the reality is that their lack of depth and their limited defensemen forced them to go with a more vanilla approach and caused New York to be brazen.
New York’s orchestrated aggression was enabled by team speed
Even though Pittsburgh wanted to slow the game down, the Rangers were able to play at a fast pace for good portions of every contest. The Rangers preyed on the Penguins’ defensive group with area and stretch passes, along with plenty of backdoor cuts. The Rangers were able to run quick-strike set plays off offensive zone faceoffs like in this action from Game 1.
This set play is designed to put two of New York’s best creators into open ice as Derick Brassard dives beneath the goal line and Mats Zuccarello curls into space. The finished product is Brassard zipping a pass to Zuccarello, who is skating right into the middle of the slot. They have set up a perfect scoring chance, although Zuccarello flubs the reception of the pass.
New York’s defensemen also contributed speed and aggression as they were encouraged to join the rush, and pinch in the offensive zone. The defensemen and forwards frequently changed places, and sometimes New York had four skaters below the circles. The Rangers were confident that their team speed overmatched the Penguins so they wouldn’t get burned for it. Also, the Rangers’ defensemen were capable of filling the role of F1, F2, or F3. And New York could overload in the offensive or defensive zone and not get exposed.
The Penguins didn’t have that luxury. They sorely missed their injured defensemen, particularly Kris Letang, who may have swung a game or two. The Penguins’ three forwards in the offensive zone were essentially all the Rangers needed to account for; the Penguins’ defensive group presented neither a shooting nor playmaking threat.
Late in the second period of Game 4, Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh activated on the weak side, and his efforts would lead to Brassard scoring the game-tying goal. It proved to be a consequential play, since that was New York’s only goal in regulation, and they would win the game in overtime and take a 3-1 lead in the series. As demonstrated by this sequence, Pittsburgh’s transition defense was suspect all series. Too often, the Penguins’ forwards were slow to get back or their defensive coverage was lackadaisical.
The Rangers’ speed also manifested itself in other facets. Their defensemen challenged the Penguins’ forwards at the blue line or even in the neutral zone because the support from New York’s forwards was consistently there. The speed advantage also appeared on the forecheck, where New York arrived quickly and wreaked havoc.
Five skaters playing offense and defense engender puck support and good decision-making
The following sequence, which leads to a goal, epitomizes the ethos of the series.
It starts with Rangers center Derek Stepan retrieving the puck and advancing it to his outlet, J.T. Miller, just as Stepan is being hammered into the boards. Miller head-mans the puck to weak-side defenseman Keith Yandle, who sees Chris Kreider charging down the wing with Pittsburgh’s immobile Rob Scuderi blocking his avenue to the goal.
Yandle tries to hit Kreider with an area pass, but Scuderi knocks it down and foils the attempt. But Scuderi manages the puck poorly when he tries to pass to his defensive partner, and Kreider jumps the passing lane and regains possession. Kreider then tries to feed Stepan, but does not connect, and the offensive zone attempt fails. Still, the elements were there for New York: clean breakout and good puck support. Also, they got an extremely favorable matchup when Scuderi was isolated on Kreider.
The sequence continues. With three Rangers forwards below the goal line, Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist receives the puck. Crosby is powering up the ice, so this would be the time for Pittsburgh to mount a three- to four-person counteroffensive. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the play led to a two-on-two where Crosby failed to beat Yandle one-on-one. The Rangers overload the right corner for good measure to make sure the Penguins’ forwards are not moving the puck toward the home-plate area. Crosby manages to get the puck to the point where Penguins defenseman Ian Cole corrals it, then passes it to Scuderi who throws the puck into the corner to continue the cycle.
Dan Girardi and Kreider double-team Crosby, steal the puck and the Rangers successfully foil the Penguins’ offensive foray. In summary, the Penguins have missed an opportunity on their rush attempt, and their inadequate scoring presence from the point sabotages the offensive-zone chance.
Unfortunately after that, Pittsburgh goes off for a line change as Yandle is calling for the puck on the weak side. Girardi feeds him the puck, and Yandle whizzes a stretch pass to surging Carl Hagelin who goes right up the gut, splitting the Penguins’ skaters, for a breakaway goal.
This goal has a little of everything, which is what makes it so notable. The Rangers display strong 200-foot puck support, and their defensive group pushes the attack. There is poor puck management by the Penguins, whose defensive group’s mobility is exploited. Crosby and Hornqvist skate into the teeth of the Rangers defense without assistance, and Pittsburgh’s lack of scoring punch from their defensemen is exposed. The entire string of events is 44 seconds, but it highlights the up-tempo methods New York employed and the predictability of the Penguins.