This is Part 2 of a 3 part series on the Boston Bruins’ 4-0 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Today, we look at some individual player performances.
Previously, I started to consider the perceptions around the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs. The 2013 Eastern Conference Final has served as the case study, that (supposedly) demoralizing sweep by the Boston Bruins. Allan Muir of SI described the Pens as “a team that continues to prize skill over will.” It’s an accusation (?) that doesn’t seem to be meaningful in any way. In Part 1, I concluded that the Pens were at least partially better at series possession ability than the Bruins.
The storylines took a twist for both teams after this series. The Pens got that “dispassionate” label (and we’ll come back to them shortly), but the Bruins were excused from that in their subsequent round loss. Yes, the story was that guys like Chara only fell to the Chicago Blackhawks because they were exhausted from their trek through the East. Ryan Lambert of Puck Daddy discussed the concern this March in a reflection on the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Lambert notes that, “it’s pretty clear [Chara’s] earned a game or three off. The Bruins can afford it now. They won’t be able to say the same when the playoffs start.”
I don’t disagree with this idea (although the Bs are running out of time for rest). The problem comes when we take a closer look at what happened to Chara in the ECF. You see, Boston wasn’t exactly in a good place against Pittsburgh.
(Before we go further, I will note the four most important pages for this consideration all come from the brilliant Extra Skater. I can’t emphasize enough just how great the site is. If you want to look further into the origin of these number, check out the game pages for ECF Game 1, ECF Game 2, ECF Game 2, and ECF Game 4)
The story SI shared was that “Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin [tried] to stickhandle their way through Boston’s smothering defense only to be rejected again and again.” The story on Chara was that exhaustion only finally hit him in the Cup Final. Let’s see exactly where all the star players stood in the 4 game series.
Groups for Analysis
In order to consider the performances of the best players on each time, I’m going to look at the results for the top 2 defensive pairings and the top 2 forward groups for both Boston and Pittsburgh. Bear with the explanation for a bit and we’ll get to the interesting stuff.
For Boston, this is a pretty straightforward task. In all four games, the two leading defensive groups (based on TOI) were Chara-Seidenberg (which I’ll label BD1) and Boychuk-Ference (BD2). Similarly, the Bruins kept their top forward sets constant those being (BF1) Krejci-Lucic-Horton, and (BF2) Bergeron-Marchand-Jagr. I’ve ignored player position in those lists, but I’ll return to that briefly.
For Pittsburgh, the forward groups were mostly constant. The first group (PF1) was Crosby-Kunitz-Dupuis in all four games. The second (PF2) was Malkin-Neal in all four, with a 3rd man switching from Iginla in 1 & 2, and Cook in 3 & 4.
Defensive pairs were more complicated for the Pens. In games 1 & 2, the first group by TOI (PD1) was Martin-Orpik, with the second (PD2) Letang floating between a number of teammates. Games 3 & 4 saw a shift in structure and the pairs were were more defined. We’ll label the first group PD3 (Martin-Letang) and the second PD4 (Orpik-Engelland).
To compare these groups in all four games, I’m going to present the 5-on-5 CF% for the TOI leader in each group. We’ll examine this game-by-game. For Boston, the choices are simple.
BD1: Chara, BD2: Boychuk, BF1: Krejci, BF2: Bergeron
For Pittsburgh, we’ll do this in two sets:
Games 1 & 2: PD1: Martin, PD2: Letang, PF1: Crosby, PF2: Malkin
Games 3 & 4: PD3: Martin, PD4: Orpik, PF1: Crosby, PF2: Malkin
Looking Into Matchups
This presentation would be incomplete if we didn’t consider the actual matchups, so I’ll list those before the CF% data. Extra Skater includes the most common opponents for each player, so I’ll list that for all 9 players we’re considering here. First, the Boston opponents (in order for Chara, Boychuk, Krejci, and Bergeron).
We’re already seeing where the stories should develop if the “will over skill” idea holds. Chara should shut down Malkin, Boychuk should keep Crosby in check, Krejci should be a force vs Martin and Orpik, and Bergeron should fare well against a variety of Pens.
Now, the Pittsburgh opponents.
Again, the most important players were forced to face each other. It’s no shock: both coaches are likely to use their best skaters, and if the best players are eating so much time, they’re bound to run into each other.
Game-by-Game CF Results
Now let’s see how each game turned out. To present this data, I’m going to show a graph of the CF% of each group representative.
To begin, here’s Game 1.
Game 1 was a pretty even affair for both teams, arguably weighted toward the Bruins. Krejci and Crosby had great possession games, Chara and Martin both performed well. Meanwhile the 2nd Bs defensive group had a rough outing, as did Letang and the Malkin Line. Was there any suffocating play by the Bruins? They did well to shut down Malkin, but Crosby’s high-level play was mostly unscathed.
How about Game 2?
Score effects reign here for the top Pittsburgh forwards (the Bruins were up by 3 before the end of the 1st period), but that there are score effects should suggest that either a) the Penguins didn’t pack it in or b) the Bruins became more conservative (no need to attack when up by 3 or 4 goals). Bergeron’s performance is noteworthy (a brilliant display), but both Crosby and Malkin were excellent within the score context.
Moving on to Game 3, the double OT marathon.
Here, the Penguins changed defensive pairs with the new top group (PD3) becoming Paul Martin and Kris Letang together. The new second group (PD4) was Orpik-Engelland. These assignments continued through Game 4.
The Pens forwards and PD3 were bright spots in Game 3. Crosby (.594) and Malkin (.566) were hardly contained, and the new-look Martin pair performance (.595) overpowered the Boychuk efforts. It’s worth noting Orpik’s poor performance came with BD4 facing all three of BF1, BD1, and BD2. But instead of Boston’s best seeing a boost from their time against Orpik, the great performances of Crosby, Malkin, and Martin buried the Bruins.
Finally, Game 4
This looks like an obvious victory for the Penguins, right? There was no smothering, there was no containment, all four Pittsburgh groups were crushing the Bruins. Orpik redeems a poor Game 3 with a dominant Game 4, and Crosby shows his Best In The World superpowers.
What Do We Learn?
This is not the story of a Pittsburgh team being “suffocated” by the will of the Boston Bruins. This is not the story of skill being defeated by sheer force of will. The story should read more like this:
Game 1 was an even contest. Game 2 was a blowout, but with the Penguins fighting hard in an effort to make up ground. Game 3 was dominant for all but one group of Pittsburgh players. Game 4 was an overwhelming display of superiority for the Pens.
That’s not what you’ll read about, that’s not what you may think of in a 4-0 sweep.
So how in the heck did Boston pull it off? How did they survive Games 3 and 4, and how did they limit the Penguins to such a minimal offensive output? I think there’s an answer, and it’s much simpler than forcing a will/skill narrative onto the ECF. We’ll look into that in Part 3.(It’s worth considering that the Game 3/Game 4 boost for the Penguins may come from a “Series Score Effect.” The idea being, the Pens were down 2 games and 3 games, so they were forced to play “harder” to keep from elimination. I have no conclusive proof that this phenomenon exists league-wide, and it’s probably only a trivial consideration in such a small-sample situation. I can’t imagine it’s helpful in any predictive way to know that teams near their exit are playing harder. Of course, we’d also want to decouple that information from team possession talent level and compare to the random noise involved in such game-to-game variance. But in a narrative sense, the “Pens were swamped” idea is inaccurate with either a “Series Score Effect” explanation or single sample observation)