They say possession is nine-tenths of the law. If the Pittsburgh Penguins win only two of their next five games, they’ll have proven for the fourth time in a row this spring that it’s also four-sevenths of a playoff series.
That’s just the simple arithmetic. The new-age, analytically-driven hockey fan will tell you the complicated math also backs that theory.
But for the Penguins it’s a theory that merges both the easy math and the fancy stats; a combination as basic as the three elements Mike Sullivan identified the very day he was introduced as this team’s head coach on December 13: possession, pursuit and pace.
In the 74 games since Sullivan took his perch for the first time behind the bench the Penguins have an overall record of 47-27, regular season and postseason combined, and his philosophy has held true against any style their opponents have played. They haven’t just used it to out-score their opponents; they’ve also used it to smother them.
In the 20 games the Penguins have played in this postseason, they have dominated in Corsi in 13 of them. In those games they are 9-4. But they’ve also won five of the seven games when the other team led in total shot attempts.
“I think our team has the ability to wear teams down with our puck pursuit game and forcing defensemen to turn and go back for pucks,” Sullivan said Wednesday night after his team took a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final. “It’s tiring. It wears on people. I’ve seen that throughout the course of this playoffs with some of our opponents.”
It worked to perfection Wednesday when Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel’s aggressive forecheck led to a Brendan Dillon turnover, and Nick Bonino directed the puck through the goal crease for Kessel to tap in his team-leading 10th goal of the playoffs.
“I think that’s one of the strengths of our group is when we establish the puck pursuit game like we have,” Sullivan said. “It makes it hard on our opponents. We become a much more difficult team to play against.”
Not only has it created scoring chances for Pittsburgh, but it has also limited San Jose’s opportunities to generate offense. The Sharks, who led the league as a team in postseason scoring and were fourth in the league in goals scored during the regular season (one spot below the Penguins), have scored only three goals in two Stanley Cup Final games.
“They were doing a good job, once we chipped pucks in, collapsing on us, of closing in on us and not giving us much time,” said Sharks forward Matt Nieto. “That’s our fault.”
“We’re not getting enough shots through,” said San Jose center Logan Couture. “We need to be better in their end offensively creating scoring chances.”
But first the Sharks have to do a better job of getting to the Penguins’ end of the rink. Getting through the neutral zone to the net has seemed more like a 200-mile journey on foot than a 200-foot burst on skates.
“I think anytime we can control the puck, that’s the plan,” Bonino said. “They had the puck for stretches, too. They’re a big team down low with the puck. I thought we defended well.”
The next test on this theory will come on Saturday and Monday nights in San Jose, where the Sharks will try to tie up the series on their home ice. But the Penguins have also shown their style of game is effective, grueling and also portable, giving them a chance to win anywhere they play.
“The Penguins are on their game,” said NHL Network analyst and former Penguin forward Mike Rupp after the game. “They’re not allowing them to have the puck.”
And if the next few games are played at the Penguins’ pace, their pursuit could end as early as this weekend with the possession of the ultimate prize.