Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 16, 2016

Crosby And Company Claim The Cup

From the first round right through to the Finals this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs featured unlikely story lines. Fans north of the border were understandably glum when not one of the seven Canadian franchises managed to skate their way into the postseason, the first time that’s happened in nearly five decades. An older generation of NHL fans tasted bitter defeat when the three members of the league’s Original Six teams that made the playoffs were all bounced out in the first round. Gone too after just one series were both Chicago and Los Angeles, the two putative dynasties of recent NHL history.

Moving on in their stead were teams like the San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators, squads that had provided their fans with far more heartbreak than hope over the years. Still skating as well were individual players who had waited for playoff glory through lengthy careers marked by postseason disappointment, like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Phil Kessel.

When the Finals came down to the Sharks versus the Pittsburgh Penguins it was easy to imagine that trend continuing, which would have meant a victory by San Jose, a team that had never reached the Finals since entering the NHL prior to the 1991-92 season. But as happens more often than not in the telling of Cinderella stories in sports, the clock struck midnight and there was no fairy godmother to conjure up a happy ending for the Sharks. While goaltender Martin Jones did his best to cast a spell on the Penguins shooters, in the end he alone couldn’t carry San Jose to victory.

Pittsburgh won with speed and pinpoint passing, which allowed the Penguins to dominate at both ends of the ice. Five times in six games the Pens scored first. Fighting from behind for virtually the entire series, the Sharks led while the clock was still running only in Game Five, as their only lead during their Game Three victory came on the overtime goal that won it. Pittsburgh put almost fifty percent more shots on goal than San Jose, outshooting the Sharks 206 to 139.

Hockey has not given itself over to advanced metrics to the same extent as some other sports, but one measure that has been used for several years is Corsi, named after longtime goaltending coach Jim Corsi. The statistic counts all shots, including those that are blocked or miss the net. The Corsi percentage of a team or player is shots for divided by total shots. Ten shots for and eight shots against yields a Corsi of 55.6%, or ten divided by eighteen. The simple theory is that a team can’t score if it doesn’t shoot, and it can’t shoot unless it has possession of the puck. Thus Corsi is a measure of possession time for a fast moving game in which it is virtually impossible to accurately measure the exact time each team controls the puck. A Corsi of 55% or above is considered elite. In the Finals Pittsburgh’s total shots outnumbered San Jose’s 353 to 267, giving the Stanley Cup champions a series Corsi of 56.9%.

That result could have been forecast in advance, as the Penguins were second in the league in regular season Corsi. In fact a majority of Stanley Cup winning teams since the NHL lockout were ranked first or second in that possession measure during the season in which they won. Much of Pittsburgh’s statistical dominance was the result of replacing Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan as head coach in mid-December, when the team was floundering at about .500. Sullivan changed the Penguins style, moving to an offensive-minded, constantly skating approach.

That change paid off in the best way possible for Penguins fans, who jammed downtown Pittsburgh 400,000 strong on Wednesday to cheer on their heroes. They roared their approval as members of the team rolled by on the back of pickup trucks and aboard duck boats. Some of the lucky ones even got to lay their hands on the Cup itself when captain Sidney Crosby slowly walked along the barricades lining the parade route with it. While he didn’t score a goal in the Finals, Crosby was named the MVP of the playoffs, a testament to both his 19 postseason points and his overall leadership of the team, a quality previously highlighted in this space.

The crucial role that the Penguins’ captain played in his team’s success was evident again on the play that ultimately won the Stanley Cup. The Sharks had tied Game 6 at 1-1 six and a half minutes into the second period. Barely a minute later the Penguins came flying into the San Jose zone. Off a feed from Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist was unable to beat Jones from left of the net. As the rebound slid clear, Crosby corralled it and in a flash skated behind the net. Letang had preceded him, and was now set up in the open on the opposite side near the faceoff circle. Crosby’s pass to him was on Letang’s stick, and he buried the quick shot between Jones’s pads before the goaltender could slide across the net mouth and get properly set up.

Seven years after he won his first, Crosby’s name now goes on the Stanley Cup for a second time. In interviews after the win he acknowledged a greater appreciation for this title. The Penguins were in back-to-back Finals in 2008 and 2009, winning the Cup in Crosby’s fourth year in the league. “You just think it’s going to be an annual thing,” he said. “You think everyone’s going to stay together, the team’s not going to change. But it does.” It does indeed, especially in the age of free agency and a hard NHL salary cap. Whether these Penguins are a one-year wonder or a team that can go on a sustained run remains to be seen. But as 400,000 happy Pittsburgh fans would surely say, that’s a concern for another day.

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