How the Penguins’ defence has shut down Sharks’ Pavelski

Most people already seem to be looking beyond the Stanley Cup Final. So dominant has the Pittsburgh Penguins been that for many it feels as if it's a foregone conclusion.

The Stanley Cup Final has been a lopsided affair so far, with the San Jose Sharks being dominated by the Pittsburgh Penguins to a truly unexpected degree.

The shot attempt differential favouring the Penguins isn’t surprising, they were the stronger score-adjusted Corsi team, and the second strongest team in the league heading into the playoffs, behind only the Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings out-possessed the Sharks as well, but the Sharks obliterated them in high-quality scoring chances, making short work of a team that was favoured by many to win it all. However that hasn’t happened against the Penguins.

The Sharks haven’t been able to penetrate the inner slot close to Matt Murray at anywhere near the frequency they were able to terrorize Brian Elliott, Pekka Rinne, and Jonathan Quick.

The most noticeable drop in effectiveness has come from team captain Joe Pavelski, and you can see it clear as day when you compare his playoff performance before the Cup Final to during it.

Pavelski SCF

Pavelski’s shots and shot attempts are down in general, but the biggest drops have been in his scoring chances and deflections. Pavelski’s numbers are still better than the average player, but he’s no longer getting scoring chances like an elite goal scorer does.

There has been some speculation that Pavelski is dealing with an injury, and at this stage of the playoffs he’s likely to be dealing with several with how often he takes abuse in front of the net, but some credit has to be given to the Penguins’ defensive scheme.

Pavelski isn’t a player that does it all himself, skating the puck in and ripping a wrist shot top corner like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or Phil Kessel do, he is a hyper-elite finisher and net-front presence, meaning someone needs to get him the puck.

Heading into this series, the Sharks had been dominating teams with their puck movement, freeing up Pavelski or Logan Couture to take prime area one-timers or deflect shots and passes in. Pittsburgh has been intensely focused on taking away that puck movement through and into the slot.

In fact, the Penguins have been so excellent positionally, that the Sharks have almost stopped attempting passes to the slot, with their forwards trying just 4.5 slot pass attempts per 20 minutes, compared to the Penguins’ 7.2 attempts.

The player they’ve been most focused on, obviously, is Joe Thornton. Thornton’s 1.5 successful passes to the slot per 20 minutes played at even strength was among the league’s elite marks coming into the series, but against the Penguins he’s only been able to manage 0.3 successful passes to the slot per 20, an 80 per cent drop in production.

Missing Tomas Hertl on their line to create havoc on the cycle is obviously a factor, but the fact is the Penguins have defended Pavelski and Thornton to perfection, even though that line maintains solid possession numbers.

If the Sharks have any hope of making this a series, they have to find a way to make the Joes effective again.

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