One of the problems the Pittsburgh Penguins have faced since their Stanley Cup victory in 2009 has been a steady erosion of their overall depth. They have a top-heavy roster and entering these playoffs their defensive depth has been decimated by injury.
Instead of the Rangers matching up with Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Christian Ehrhoff, the Pens have been forced to go with relative unknowns in Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin and Taylor Chorney. This not only undermines their defensive-zone coverage, but limits their ability to create clean zone exits and provide transition opportunities for the superstar-laden front line.
This is a dangerous limitation to have when facing a team like the Rangers, where a player like Kevin Hayes can wreak havoc against depth lines and a defensive core that starts Keith Yandle on their third pairing.
While reviewing the Rangers/Penguins series, it became easy to see where the Rangers were exploiting their depth advantage to gain a 3-1 series lead.
The Blueshirts have deployed their top defensive pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi against the Sidney Crosby line. Alain Vigneault has managed to maintain this matchup at home and on the road through the first four tilts of the series.
When you matchup against the greatest forward in the world, the goal is to maintain a draw. We can see Vigneault’s intentions as McDonagh and Girardi are starting only 43% of their draws in the offensive zone. They are almost at 49% possession and are winning the shot battle with a 56.25% of all shots directed at the Penguins’ net, while McDonagh is on the ice at even strength.
McDonagh and Girardi are most often paired with Carl Hagelin, Kevin Hayes and Martin St. Louis and this matchup’s success is a major reason the Rangers are in the driver’s seat through the first four games.
Dan Boyle and Marc Staal have been tasked with shutting down the Evgeni Malkin line. While they are supported by the top line of Rick Nash, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, they are also meant to soak up defensive-zone starts.
They are generally carrying possession, but are being buried in shot rate and haven’t been able to finish any of their high-quality opportunities. Both these pairings have been deployed in this manner following the late-season acquisition of Keith Yandle.
The Rangers have used Yandle in an exploitation role and this is where their depth has really come into play. Using the top two pairing to soak up the tough matchups, they are free to use Yandle in a strictly offensive role. Through four games, Yandle has began over 75% of his zone starts in the offensive zone.
He’s being supported by Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and J.T. Miller who are going against the Penguins’ bottom lines and this is where the Rangers have really taken advantage of the Penguins at even strength – 58% possession and nine green shots to just one allowed. While most of the focus has been on how Yandle would help the power play, he is benefitting from the Rangers’ defensive depth. He is unburdened from the top pairing responsibilities he had in Arizona and is thriving eating up the likes of Brandon Sutter, Steve Downie and Nick Spaling.
Although the Penguins’ top-end talent on the surface remains scary, I continue to like the Rangers’ depth and goaltending advantage. The Rangers are fully deserving of their 3-1 lead and should be able to finish up the series over the next couple of games.