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Stats say Penguins are ready to pick up steam

Jonathan Bombulie
| Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, 5:53 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby fight off the Blackhawks' Nick Schmaltz for the puck in the third period Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby fight off the Blackhawks' Nick Schmaltz for the puck in the third period Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
The Sabres' Ryan O'Reilly tries to slow down the Penguins' Sidney Crosby in the first period Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Sabres' Ryan O'Reilly tries to slow down the Penguins' Sidney Crosby in the first period Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins' Kris Letang controls the puck during the first period of the Hockeyville USA preseason game against the Blues Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang controls the puck during the first period of the Hockeyville USA preseason game against the Blues Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.

Through the first two months of the season, Penguins fans have been waiting — some patiently, others not as much — for their favorite hockey team to look like the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions they are.

A dive into the stat sheet indicates they might not have to wait much longer.

In fact, since the end of a five-game western road trip earlier this month, the Penguins have been playing some pretty good even-strength hockey.

The scoreboard doesn't necessarily reflect it. After a 2-1 home loss to Chicago on Saturday night, the Penguins are 3-2-1 since the trip ended. That's largely a function of a leaky penalty kill, however. The Penguins have given up two goals to opposing power plays in four of their last five games.

If the penalty kill problem clears up, a look at shot-based stats paints a rosier picture for the future.

Before the western road trip, the Penguins found themselves trapped in their own zone much more often than they would have liked. At five-on-five, they were taking 48.6 percent of shot attempts, which left them ranked 19th in the league.

Since the trip ended, they've been getting 53.5 percent of shot attempts, which is fourth best in the league.

That simple measure of shot attempts, referred to as Corsi in hockey circles, is a crude tool for evaluating possession. The Penguins have internal stats that present a fuller picture of how effective they have been. When coach Mike Sullivan says he sees improvement in certain areas, his statements are informed by those analytics.

“We track certain stats internally that we think help us identify trends and where our team is at and where we're going. Are we making progress in certain areas?” Sullivan said. “I think that's the whole purpose of tracking statistics. For me, the only real reason or purpose for tracking statistics is so you can learn something and therefore react, one way or another.”

When evaluating the first quarter of the season for the Penguins, much of the focus has fallen on two particular players: Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby.

Letang has spent much of the season at the bottom of the league's plus-minus rankings, and Crosby only recently snapped an 11-game goal drought.

The numbers indicate better days ahead for both star players, especially Letang.

Before the end of the road trip, Letang, who was coming off April neck surgery, was in a bad place.

When he was on the ice in five-on-five situations, the Penguins were being outscored 25-7. His 48.2 shot-attempt percentage was fifth-worst among the team's regulars.

Since the end of the trip, though, Letang's numbers are some of the best in the league. His shot-attempt percentage of 62.0 is sixth-best among NHL defensemen during that span. When he's been on the ice five-on-five, the Penguins have outshot their opponents 70-38.

Crosby's resurgence is a little more subtle, largely because he didn't fall to the same early-season depths Letang did.

Since the end of the road trip, though, Crosby has seen a respectable rise in his shot-attempt percentage from 49.2 to 54.7.

His breakthrough, however, probably will come once his shooting percentage gets closer to his career norms. Crosby is scoring on 8.7 percent of his shots. His career average is 14.6 percent.

In other words, he's due for some pucks to go in.

“He's had a significant number of scoring chances. He's controlled territory. He's controlled momentum. He's doing a lot of the right things out there,” Sullivan said. “You can't always control whether the puck goes in the net or not for you, but when you play the game the right way, as we think he's doing right now, he's too good of a player not to turn it in his favor.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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