Murray & Hot Shooting Have Pens in Driver’s Seat

By: Chris Boyle

The Pittsburgh Penguins are sitting in the exact same position they were last season.

After Wednesday’s victory, the Penguins are once again up two games to none and in the driver’s seat, two games away from a championship repeat.

The surface results are the same, but the metrics don’t favor the Penguins the same way they did in their dominant romp last season. The Pens were so overwhelming last season that shooting streaks and hot goaltending couldn’t derail them.

Pittsburgh hasn’t been as territorially dominant and has needed red-hot shooting to jump past the Predators early in the series.

The Penguins have destroyed the MVP candidacy of Pekka Rinne, as the regression gods dragged him back to reality with some fortunate bounces and torrid shooting. While Rinne has struggled, the Penguins have done a good job of creating pre-shot movement and forcing him into 83% clear sight. Where the Predators have to be frustrated is the Penguins’ .883 finishing rate on their high-quality shots. Five of the six shots the Penguins have registered with pre-shot movement have entered the goal. Significantly higher than the .309 NHL average.

This shooting isn’t sustainable, but the play of Matt Murray is. While the Penguins’ shot rate against isn’t the elite level they maintained last season, Murray and Fleury before him have been heavily insulated from high-danger opportunities.

Murray has a very similar shot distribution to the one Rinne enjoyed entering the Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins are continually lauded for their offensive success, but the past two Stanley Cup runs have been driven by a swarming team defense. Their struggles driving play in the first two games of the Final are all at the offensive end. The Predators are dominating the shot clock, but their distribution has only resulted in an expected four goals. That’s exactly the number of goals Murray has conceded.

This trend isn’t new. If we look at the last two full playoff runs by the Penguins, we see more of the same. While history has proven that above-average goaltending is extremely important for short-term upsets, it is no longer an integral part of a Stanley Cup champion. The Chicago Blackhawks won in 2015 without it and teams with superstar goaltenders like Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist have struggled because their teams haven’t found a way to compliment them.

While those of us in the media tend to blow up goaltender controversies, the Penguins’ combo consistently delivers the same results, just in a different manner. Fleury has a higher upside than Murray, but he is also more combustible. Murray isn’t really a large sample upgrade, but in an environment where one game can make a difference, the Pens’ odds are better with the steadier Murray. It’s the smart play.

The Penguins now have a 1300-shot playoff sample of being able to maintain a strong defensive environment that cuts off backdoor danger and pushes shots to the exterior. The challenge for the Predators is to move Murray out of this comfort zone.  Murray is significantly below average on slot-line feeds with a .583 SV%, well below the league average of .684 with his distribution. If the Predators cannot get him moving and settle for exterior clear-sighted shots where Murray is above average, then they will be reliant on fortune and luck to get back in the series.

Playoff hockey can turn on a dime. The Senators consistently frustrated the Penguins with their streak shooting and dominant goaltending. It all came crashing down over a two-game sample, only to totally reverse trend for Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final. The regression gods can be cruel and force unexpected crashes. The Predators aren’t out of this yet. They have controlled the play for long dominant stretches. If they can get Murray moving and cash in with some luck, they will get right back in the series.