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Penguins’ defense, not Fleury, needs to step up after Capitals force Game 7

Marc-Andre Fleury was outstanding through four games against Washington, but as the Capitals continue to dominate play, it's up to the Penguins' defense to find a way to slow their opponents' attack down.

Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t have a great game Monday night. In fact, after looking like a brick wall early in the series against the Capitals, Fleury looked fairly pedestrian against Washington in Game 6. He allowed at least one or two goals he’d probably like back and when the final buzzer sounded, Fleury had been beaten five times on 26 shots as the Capitals knotted the series, setting up a winner-take-all Game 7.

But Fleury was far from the Penguins’ biggest problem on Monday night, just as he wasn’t their biggest problem in Saturday night’s Game 5. He also wasn’t the issue in the other contest Pittsburgh dropped, Game 3, when he turned aside 30 of the 33 shots he faced in an overtime loss. Rather, through six games in this battle between arguably the two best teams in the East, it’s become awfully clear the biggest issue for the Penguins is their inability to slow down the Capitals’ offense.

When it comes to generating shots and controlling the run of play, underlying numbers point out that Washington has been largely uninhibited against Pittsburgh. The wide shots and possession advantage the Capitals had after the opening game only increased in Game 2, despite the Penguins’ blowout win, and it hasn’t slowed since. Truthfully, it’s almost comical how great the possession and shots advantage has been for Washington and how much Pittsburgh has struggled to stifle their opponents. Over the course of the six-game set, Washington has 62.2 percent of the shot attempts for at 5-on-5 and nearly 61.5 percent of the actual shots on goal at the same strength. The gap in total shots is a whopping 57. In attempts, the Capitals hold a plus-131 advantage.

It’s not altogether shocking that Washington is capable of dominating play like this, of course. They have arguably the deepest attack of any team, with three lethal lines capable of scoring on any given shift. There are at least four top-flight scorers on the Capitals, including Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andre Burakovsky is making his case as one of the unsung heroes. But star-studded offense or not, no one expected Pittsburgh’s defense to get run over at the rate they have.

Consider this: the pairing of Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey has a Corsi for percentage of 38.4 percent through six games. Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley are running along at 31.4 percent, and, with Daley sidelined, Maatta slipped to 27.3 percent paired with Chad Ruhwedel in Game 6. The best pairing, if you can call it that, has been Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, but even they’re boasting a Corsi for of only 41.8 percent.

No doubt playing a part in the Penguins’ difficulty in slowing the Capitals have been the injuries with which they’re dealing. Missing Daley in Game 6 gave Pittsburgh one less reliable, playoff-tested blueliner, and the absence of Kris Letang throughout the post-season has seemingly caught up to an undermanned and overpowered Penguins defense. Letang would give Pittsburgh the reliable puck-mover that could push play away from the Pittsburgh goal. Sadly, he’s not available and won’t be stepping foot on ice for some time yet.

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It goes beyond the blueliners, though. It should be up to the team, as a whole, to find a way to slow down the Capitals and force Washington to fight for every inch of ice. But as the series has worn on, it seems the opposite is happening. Matter of fact, the increase in shots from medium-danger areas in the offensive zone would suggest the Capitals have managed to find more holes in the Penguins’ defensive game as the series has progressed. 

At 5-on-5 through the first four games, Washington was averaging 14 shots from low-danger areas, 8.75 from medium-danger areas and 4.5 per game from the prime scoring areas. Those high-danger shots — in the slot and right on top of the blue paint — have remained consistent and the low-danger shots have dipped to six per game over the past two outings. However, Washington generated 23 shots from medium-danger zones in Games 5 and 6. That’s 11.5 per game, pointing to a Capitals team that is getting to the high-slot and firing away with a higher frequency.

Which brings us back to Fleury. Through the first four games of the series, he stopped 133 of the 142 shots that came his way, good for a .937 save percentage against a Capitals team that boasts one of the most high-powered offenses in the league. He was outstanding, keeping the Penguins in games and allowing Pittsburgh to speed to a 3-1 series lead. At 5-on-5 during those first four games, Fleury turned in an impressive .945 SP. Unless Fleury had somehow captured and bottled Tim Thomas’ game from the 2011 post-season, though, his numbers were bound to drop — and drop they have. 

Small sample size and all that, but Fleury has posted an .845 SP in the past two games, stopping only 49 of the 58 shots that have come his way. At 5-on-5, the dip has been equally as eye-popping, as Fleury boasts a mark of .841 across Games 5 and 6. Facing so many medium- and high-danger shots has started to become a tough task for Fleury, too. Through Game 4, Fleury had allowed only two high-danger goals, four medium-danger tallies and had yet to be beaten from the low-percentage areas of the ice at five-a-side. He’s remained as sturdy from the low-danger zones, but over the past two games, he hasn’t been so lucky against the best chances Washington has produced. The Capitals have lit the lamp five times from high-danger areas and twice on medium-danger attempts.

Yes, shaky defense or not, Fleury’s not absolved from all responsibility for the Game 6 defeat, but the fact is the onus has to be on the Penguins, as a team, to find a way to stifle the Capitals’ attack if they want to avoid blowing a 3-1 series lead to one of their greatest rivals. Fleury stood tall early in the series, helped Pittsburgh gain the lead and, given the circumstances, has played incredibly well throughout the playoffs up until the start of Game 5. Now’s he showing some cracks. 

As such, this is the time for his defense to reward him for his early play, shut down Washington’s offense and keep the puck to the outside, limiting the Capitals’ chances by whatever means necessary. If the Penguins can’t do that, they may be dealing with a crushing defeat and an earlier trip home than they had planned.

(All advanced statistics via Corsica)

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