It’s been a while, but we finally have enough hockey being played that we can bring back Truth by Numbers, and this week the featured player is doing exactly what the Pittsburgh Penguins were worried about.
When the NHL was proposing this play-in scenario, the Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t too pleased that they would be drawing the Montreal Canadiens, citing having to deal with a rested Carey Price as a big hurdle to leap in order for the team with the sixth-best record in the regular season to reach the round of 16.
Considering Price’s performance in the regular season, and the fact that the Canadiens sold at the trade deadline, that was met with a fair amount of mockery on social media. Surely the high-powered Penguins wouldn’t have a problem beating a goaltender who struggled for most of the year?
Fast forward to three games into the five-game series, and Price has been the MVP so far with his Canadiens holding a 2-1 series lead on the back of his .937 save percentage. Compared to the regular season, Price has been far, far better from both the inner slot and the high slot, and he hasn’t given the Penguins an easy goal yet three games into a series that — on paper — shouldn’t be where it is.
Obviously Price is stopping more pucks than he was before, and that’s most of what goaltending is. But he has also contributed to cutting down chances against by slashing his own turnover rate, from 9.3 per cent to 8.5 per cent, and lowering the number of shots he allows rebounds on, from about 55 per cent of all shots to about 44 per cent.
Fewer turnovers of his own means less desperation in regaining positioning, and fewer rebounds means fewer second-chance opportunities, which have extremely high expected goal rates.
Price has clearly been laser-focused in this series, but should the Canadiens skaters get some credit for shutting the Penguins down and making his life easier? Let’s compare what Price has faced in the playoffs for shot quality compared to what he faced in the regular season when he was struggling.
I think some level of credit should be given to the Canadiens for keeping the Penguins to average team levels in the inner slot, and just a little above it in the slot overall, but if you were to only look at those areas you would miss how high the quality of chances are that the Penguins are actually putting on net.
A higher percentage of their shots are screened than normal, they’re getting tons of slot passes through the Canadiens, a team that wasn’t very good preventing those passes in the first place. As a result of those passes through the middle, the Canadiens are giving up a ton of one-timers to the Penguins, so Price is having to move laterally a ton.
It’s not a coincidence that five of the seven goals Price has allowed in this series have been on either cross-ice passes or back-door tap ins, with the others being rebound recoveries in front of the net.
The Penguins are giving up territory in front of Price to get the puck moving through the middle, and while that has given them some success, it hasn’t been enough to outweigh the impact he’s had on the games.
• Nikolaj Ehlers had a fantastic regular season, about on par for point production with his best two seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18, but he was even better in these playoffs for the Jets. Finally busting his playoff goal scoring goose egg with goals in back-to-back games, Ehlers played an even more important with Mark Scheifele on the sidelines.
• The only player in the Jets/Flames series who had more offensive involvement than Ehlers was … Adam Lowry. One of the league’s best third liners for years now, Lowry and his partner-in-crime Andrew Copp were stellar against the Flames.
• The only Flames forward to match those Jets in offence creation at 5-on-5 was defensive stalwart Mikael Backlund. Backlund was involved in over 10 scoring chances every 20 minutes of play. The Flames did things more by committee in ousting the Jets, which teams with more depth have the luxury of doing.
• The Canucks’ top offensive driver? J.T. Miller, whose blistering pace has seen him create almost 16 chances per 20 minutes. Elias Pettersson broke out in Game 3 to help the Canucks take a stranglehold on the series, and the Canucks will need more of that. Through the first two games he was only the seventh-most involved forward in the offence overall. We all know he’s better than that.
• For the Oilers to get back in their series against the Blackhawks, they need to find a way to shut down Dominik Kubalik. Through three games, the Blackhawks control 80 per cent of the inner-slot shots with Kubalik on the ice, 71 per cent of the shots, 64 per cent of the shot attempts and an absolutely absurd 85 per cent of the slot shots. The rookie is killing them.
• Mitch Marner has faced some criticism for his performance against the Blue Jackets so far, but in terms of controlling play, he’s been pretty stellar — even if he looks a little off. The Leafs are controlling 100 per cent of the inner-slot shots, 68 per cent of the shots, 71 per cent of the shot attempts and 76 per cent of the slot passes with Marner on the ice. Something tells me he’ll be just fine.