The 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins relied on a devastating combination of greatness and luck to become the first team in 20 years to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.
In a lot of ways this latest championship was pretty improbable given the obstacles and adversity they had to overcome along the way.
They had nobody playing the role of a No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman and had to travel a daunting path through two of the four best teams in the NHL before even reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. What made it even more incredible was the fact they spent most of the first-two rounds getting outshot, outchanced and outplayed, leaving heavily on their goaltending to get them through.
Given the copycat nature of professional sports it’s probably worth looking at just how the Penguins reached this point because there is no doubt that the NHL’s 30 general managers outside of Pittsburgh are breaking this title run down to see if there is anyway they can apply it to their teams. We saw in the aftermath of their 2016 championship when “speed” and “play fast” were the buzzwords thrown around the NHL in the offseason.
The reality is this: What the Penguins did this postseason can not be duplicated.
It is not unfair to say that the Penguins experienced a good deal of luck along the way to their latest championship. Because they did.
Every team that wins a title needs a little bit of luck to get there, and most teams that get outshot to the degree the Penguins did in the first three rounds don’t typically get through them unscathed.
The Penguins were just the 15th team over the past 30 years to reach the Stanley Cup Final while getting outshot through the first three rounds of the playoffs (they were outshot by 46 shots).
They were only the fifth team in that group to actually end up winning the Stanley Cup.
There is an element of good fortune there, and it comes largely from the play of their goaltenders — Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury — playing brilliantly and keeping them in a lot of games. With anything less than greatness from that spot the Penguins’ playoff run probably ends in the first or second round. A hot goaltender carrying a team deep into the playoffs isn’t anything shocking. It happens.
But luck wasn’t the only key ingredient to this run.
There was also an element of greatness to it when it comes to their offense and ability to put the puck in the net.
They did it in a rather unconventional way, and in a change from what we saw from them last season they were a puck possession monster that steamrolled over every opponent and averaged 35 shots on goal per game.
This postseason the Penguins managed just 28.7 shots on goal per game, a number that was not only the lowest for any Stanley Cup champion over the past 11 years, but they were the only champion during that stretch that did not average at least 30.5 shots on goal per game. They were nearly two shots per game behind every other recent champion. That is not an insignificant number.
They had the third-lowest shot volume of any team in the playoffs this year.
But because they converted on 10.8 percent of their shots they still managed to average more than three goals per game.
For most teams a 10.8 shooting percentage would be an unsustainable number that would be almost certain to regress.
The Penguins are not most teams.
The Penguins are able to make it work because they have the best collection of forwards in hockey led by a pair of generational talents in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, an elite goal-scorer in Phil Kessel, and a group of complementary players that help form four lines that are all capable of scoring.
This is what elite talent does and it is not something to just easily write off.
Whenever a team has a shooting percentage that sticks out significantly above the league average — as the Penguins were this postseason — there is a rush to paint it as unsustainable. But the Penguins’ shooting percentage this postseason was almost perfectly in line with what they have done during every year of the Crosby-Malkin era. The lone exception was the year-and-a-half Mike Johnston was their coach.
The Penguins don’t always need to generate a ton of shots to score. They don’t always need to dominate the possession game. They would almost certainly prefer to play that way. They probably don’t want to have to rely on counterattacking and great goaltending to win. But given the makeup of their roster this postseason on defense they almost had no choice but to play that way. And it worked.
It would not work for just about any other team in the league because nobody else has the type of high end talent the Penguins have.
The key to duplicating what the Penguins did this postseason would be finding another Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to go with a collection of young, cheap complementary forwards (Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary) all hitting the NHL at the same time. That is, quite simply, not likely to happen.
The Penguins’ Stanley Cup win this season was not a sign that teams don’t need a No. 1 defenseman to win.
It shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that shot metrics don’t matter.
It also shouldn’t be completely written off as a lucky team that just got hot at the right time.
It simply shows the Penguins, through some good fortune in a couple of draft lotteries more than a decade ago, a blockbuster trade, and some shrewd drafting and developing built a collection of forwards that is unmatched anywhere else in the NHL, playing in front of two No. 1 goalies.
It was a unique roster, and it worked for them.
It will almost certainly not work for anyone else because there is not another Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin walking through the door for the same team at the same time.