PITTSBURGH — When looking at the results it is easy to conclude that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have been pretty evenly matched through the first six games of their second-round playoff series.
Both teams have won three games.
Both teams have scored 18 goals.
In the two areas that matter the most, it is exactly what you might expect from the two best teams in the league during the regular season.
Yet when you watch the teams play against one another on the ice, and when you look at all of the underlying numbers (mostly the shots on goal and the shot attempts), it is clear that the Capitals have completely dictated the pace of the series and have been the better team.
And not by a little, either.
Hockey is a funny sport, and when you put an entire season down to a best-of-seven series, crazy things can happen that can completely flip everything upside down. When that happens, it usually results in swift overreactions that either see a great team get gutted far too soon, or an ordinary team get saddled with unrealistic expectations and then face the disappointment that comes from not meeting them.
Nothing can do that quite like goaltending can.
Through the first four games of this series (when the Penguins held a seemingly commanding 3-1 lead) that is exactly what was happening.
Marc-Andre Fleury was standing on his head in the Penguins’ net and masking all of the flaws that existed in front of him defensively. In the Washington net, Braden Holtby was off of his game as the Penguins were opportunistic and capitalized on the chances the Capitals presented them.
It was every postseason nightmare the Washington Capitals have experienced over the past few years. Play well. Do everything right. Run into a goalie that plays out of his mind and ruins everything.
It was also pretty much a continuation of what we saw from the Penguins in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it was worth asking if they could continue to scratch out wins playing that way (and we did ask it).
It was basically going to come down to Fleury’s ability to keep stealing them games because right now he is probably the single biggest reason they are still playing hockey this season. If he doesn’t hold down the fort in pretty much every game the Penguins came out flat in, or post a .930 save percentage, who knows what direction their postseason goes in. Probably not a good one.
He has, quite simply, bailed them out.
If they are going to play beyond Wednesday night and advance to the Eastern Conference Final for the second year in a row and continue their defense of the Stanley Cup, they are almost certainly going to need him to do it one more time.
Given the way this series has been played, there really doesn’t seem to be another path for the Penguins to win it. Anything else would require them reaching a level they have not yet shown they are capable of this postseason as currently constructed.
The problem is simple: Without Kris Letang the Penguins are missing arguably their most important player. He is not only one of the five or six best defensemen in the entire league, he is one of the best players in the entire NHL regardless of position. On their way to the Stanley Cup one year ago he played, quite literally, half of every playoff game and did so at a level that only a handful of other players are capable of.
Without him they are not only lacking that presence, they have had to see players that are in the lineup get over-extended into roles they are not really cut out for or used to playing. Instead of having Letang play the most minutes — and the most meaningful minutes — their ice-time leader this postseason has been 36-year-old Ron Hainsey. With all due respect to Hainsey, a fine NHL defenseman for 13 seasons, he is not Kris Letang.
The Penguins’ ability to exit their zone has been a constant issue this postseason. They are unable to make plays through the neutral zone. The offense tends to fizzle out quickly on the rare occasion they do get into the offensive zone. It has shown on the shot chart where the Penguins have been bleeding an almost unheard of number of shots against and have been the worst possession team in the playoffs.
It is not the way they won the Stanley Cup one year ago, and it has put a ton of pressure on their goaltender to be at his best every single night.
“Obviously I think our team is at its best when it’s in the offensive zone,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan following Monday’s game.
“Three games ago you guys were praising our team for our counter-attack. The reality is we are trying to keep our eye on the right ball. We know how we play. There are areas we have addressed almost daily, certainly game in and game out, where we know we can be better as a group and we work on that. Tonight is no different. It did not go the way we wanted it to go. We have to have a short memory, we have to go back to work tomorrow, we have to go back to Game 7.”
When they are not on the power play or getting an opportunity on a counter-attack, they are simply not creating much in the way of offense.
That all starts with the defense.
So far, the Capitals have feasted on that with a dominating territorial edge that they are finally starting to be rewarded for. There is little reason to believe they will not continue to have that edge in Game 7 because they have had it for pretty much every minute of the previous six games.
This isn’t to say that the Capitals are guaranteed to win their third game in a row (they are not), or that the Penguins have no chance on Wednesday (they do).
But that chance is going to rest almost entirely on Fleury being able to do something he has already done multiple times this postseason for the Penguins: Steal a game for them.