Through two games of the Stanley Cup Final, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been badly outshot, lost the majority of faceoffs and had the puck far less than the Nashville Predators.
Yet, they lead the series 2-0, following a familiar script.
The Penguins frustrated the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators with this unconventional method of winning. They’re doing it again, needing just two more victories to win back-to-back championships.
The Penguins scored three goals in a span of 3:08 in the third period of Game 2. Pittsburgh won despite a 37-minute shot drought in Game 1.
“It’s amazing,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “You’ve got to give Pittsburgh some credit here because they keep doing it. They get outplayed for long stretches, and then they counterattack and then they execute on the counterattack. They make the best of their scoring opportunities, and it seems to be a consistent pattern.”
It’s a winning pattern that that could make Pittsburgh just the third team since the start of the salary-cap era in 2006 to be outshot and win the Cup, following the 2011 Boston Bruins and 2015 Chicago Blackhawks.
The Penguins lost 44 of 77 faceoffs in Game 2 to fall under 50 percent for the series at 66-68. They’ve allowed 64 shots and taken 39 and been out-attempted 86-57 at 5-on-5 and are 1 of 10 on the power play.
Nashville has controlled the play so far with nothing to show for it.
“We can’t just look at the numbers and say, ‘Yeah, we’re winning all the numbers but the scoreboard,'” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said Thursday. “There’s got to be things we got to do better.”
The Penguins are already 9-6 in these playoffs when outshot by an opponent, in part because they’re scoring on a league-best 10.9 percent of their shots, which if it stands would be second-best among champions in the cap era behind only the 2010 Blackhawks.
That kind of shooting success is difficult to sustain over 82 games but not impossible considering the firepower the Penguins have in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
“They got three superstars on that team,” Senators coach Guy Boucher said. “At some point or another, they’re going to get their looks. It’s really tough to defend against that.”
It’s even tougher when the goaltending can’t match up. Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray have combined for a .930 save percentage as Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky put up an .882, Washington’s Braden Holtby a .778 and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne a .778 of his own through two games.
You can’t blame Ottawa’s Craig Anderson and his .936 save percentage for not knocking out the Penguins, but there are plenty of other reasons the defending champs are still standing.
Early in the first round, Columbus players called Penguins goals “lucky” and “fluky” and insisted everything would be all right if they continued to play their game. At one point, captain Nick Foligno said: “There’s so much good that we’re doing that it’s going to break for us eventually.”
Sound familiar, Nashville? It didn’t ever break for the Blue Jackets and they were ousted in five games despite putting 23 more shots on net than the Penguins. There’s a reason Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan stresses a “counterattack mentality.”
Given the Capitals’ 61-45 shot advantage through two games, Jay Beagle was asked if he was worried that his teammates sounded an awful lot like the Blue Jackets. Yeah, maybe.
“You can feel like you’re dominating them a little bit, dominating play in their zone a lot, and they strike,” Beagle said. “They’re really good at obviously capitalizing on their opportunities.”
Much like P.K. Subban said after the Predators’ Game 2 Cup Final loss that they played well for all but about three crucial minutes, the Capitals tried to fend off similar frustration when seemingly every odd-man rush against was turning into a Penguins goal.
“It’s easy to get frustrated when you feel like you played (better),” said Brooks Orpik, who won the Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009. “Whether you outplay a team for 55 minutes and you still have nothing to show for it, I think you’ve just got to just have belief in what you’re doing that over the course of 60 minutes or over time that eventually you’re going to get the result that you want.”
After coming back to force a Game 7 and losing on home ice, the Capitals came away from the series believing they were the better team but were outplayed. The Predators are similarly talking now about the Penguins’ fortunes on bounces but are trying not to fall into the same trap.
“The chances that we’ve given up are low; the shot opportunities we’ve given up are low,” Laviolette said. “But yet we’re finding ones that I think we can clean up and help take care of some of the situations that we’re leaving against an opportunistic team.”
Every opponent can agree: Opportunistic is the best way to describe these Penguins.
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed.
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