Pittsburgh's loss to the Washington Capitals the other night brought to light certain perceptions of the two clubs. They play drastically different styles. Pittsburgh is built on speed and the Washington Capitals are built upon size and strength. On Tuesday night size and strength won the contest. As a result some people think that the Penguins as currently constructed cannot compete against those kinds of teams.
I am here to tell you that is patently false.
We know that while possession stats are not an absolute in terms of predictability they still remain one of the better tools at our disposal to predict future success.
So far during this season the Penguins and Capitals have played three times. Here is how those games have played out at even-strength:
The idea that Pittsburgh struggles against Washington is false. They are more than capable of playing at even-strength against the perceived best team in the conference.
If you want to take those numbers further you could dismiss the first game because it came under Mike Johnston and before the team made additional roster moves to become a speed team (Scuderi for Daley, Perron for Hagelin, giving AHL guys a look). Under Mike Sullivan the Penguins control 59.4% of even-strength play against Washington.
Here is how each team's season has played out via Score-Adjusted Fenwick with 10 game rolling averages
Two completely different styles that look very similar in their ability to control the flow of play.
The notion that Pittsburgh's style cannot work against physical teams is not correct. While Pittsburgh may get worn down from physical teams on occasion the same could be said in reverse. The more physical team may be worn down chasing all the speed that is on the ice. It is a two way street.
The Chicago Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups and have participated in five conference finals in the past seven years. They are also one of the smallest teams in the league.
From Rich's blog
Anybody want to bet against the Blackhawks this year? Should they toughen up?
Now there is a counter argument to this and it has been presented to me
My response to that is you are absolutely correct. The Kings are probably the second most successful team in the cap era and they do things completely different than the Blackhawks do. Los Angeles has made the conference finals in three of the past four years including two Stanley Cup championships and if not for severe shooting percentage woes they would have been an incredibly hard out last year as well.
It doesn't matter what style your team plays. No one style is the correct path to a championship. The key to winning a championship is to commit to something and then play to your own strengths. Pittsburgh didn't know what kind of team they were the past two seasons. They tried to be the best of both worlds and that just isn't going to happen. It wasn't until they changed coaches and committed to speed that they are now starting to find their way.
That red dot shows where the Penguins were when Mike Sullivan took over and Scuderi/Perron was replaced with Daley/Hagelin. The team is trending in the right direction and is poised to be a tough out in the playoffs. Don't trust me just ask analytics guru and expert food critic Travis Yost:
But, since early December, this team has exploded. As a general rule, I usually note that any team that can consistently breach 52 per cent Corsi% (and ScoringChance%, for that matter) have a shot at winning a Stanley Cup, so long as all of the other items – special teams and goaltending, most specifically – don’t raise any red flags. Once you start getting above the 54 per cent window, you are talking about a truly elite class.
Should we start talking about Pittsburgh as a real playoff threat? I think so. The window is as open as you’ll ever see it in the East right now, primed for a second team to jump in and compete with the favourite over in D.C. All signs indicate that this Penguins club is playing a pretty damn respectable brand of hockey right now – one that could push it over the hump in April.
Barring health (haha) the Pittsburgh Penguins have a good of a chance as any team in the Eastern Conference this year. They have finally committed themselves to what kind of team they want to be through their coaching choice and roster construction.
It isn't so much what style a team plays as much as it is about the team owning that style. Pittsburgh is owning the speed dynamic while a team like Washington is owning their physicality. Both teams are better for it.
Thanks for reading!