The Penguins have been playing in a conservative, defense-first style since the 42nd game of the season, when their franchise face, Sidney Crosby, was put onto the injured reserve with a concussion. What was once considered a mild concussion, and the switch to defensive hockey to be only temporary, head coach Dan Bylsma quickly realised it may have to become permanent due to rising level of severity on Crosby's concussion, and he has done a great job with it.
The Pens have allowed just 2.39 goals/game, which ranks fifth in the NHL, while their penalty kill efficiency, and shots allowed/game rank at the best and fifth best, respectively. Their winning percentages of .793 and .889 when leading after the first and second periods are even ranked in the top ten, showing their ability to shut down defensively and hold on to leads.
The Capitals have had to revert to a defensive game for a completely different reason. Washington went through some early season struggles with their offense, with it flickering on and off, and their defense had been unstable from the net out, which eventually led to a horrific eight-game losing streak.
This forced head coach Bruce Boudreau to enforce a different playing style, as the Capitals' previous high-risk, high reward type of play had been figured out and was inconsistent.
The new style has paid dividends for the Caps; after fluctuating between the third and sixth spots in the conference for the first almost half of the season, the Caps went on a 24-11-7 second half tear to eventually catch up to the East-leading Philadelphia Flyers and capture the Eastern Conference title for the third straight season.
In the process, their penalty kill efficiency, goals and shots allowed/game rank in the top five in the league, while their winning percentages when leading after the first and second periods, and in face-offs are ranked in the top 10 in the league.
Both team's defensive adjustments have really paid off, but one can ask, can it pay off in the playoffs? Can their newly adjusted-to types of games lead them to the ultimate goal of the Stanley Cup?
The answer is yes, and you need look no further than the Stanley Cup finalists the last four cup finals for evidence, with a jump over the 2006 finals (Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers), and then a few more cup finalists before the lockout.
To give you some more recent examples, we will start in 2007, when the Anaheim Ducks embarrassed the Ottawa Senators to claim the silver trophy. The two teams ranked in the top five in goals and shots allowed/game, face-off winning percentage, and winning percentages after leading at the end of the first and second. Ottawa was ranked in the top five in penalty killing, while Anaheim was two spots behind.
In 2008 and 2009, when the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins met and then met again—splitting the two series, series—the Penguins were top five in all defensive categories except face-off percentage, while Detroit was slightly behind in penalty killing, otherwise top five-ing in everything else.
Of course, Detroit was in the top five in penalty killing during their winning year, and the Pens were respectable in face-off percentage in their winning season.
And then the most recent, and perhaps the best example, the Chicago Blackhawks winning it all last season over an equally defensive team in the Philadelphia Flyers. Both teams ranked in the top four of the sixteen playoff participants in penalty killing efficiencies, winning percentages after leading after one and two, and goals and shots allowed/game.
Another intriguing statistic is that seven of these eight teams have usually ranked in and around the top seven in all the defensive categories I've mentioned during the regular season as well, and have usually ranked in the top five spots in their conferences.
One thing history in sports has taught us is that statistics don't lie, and this is no exception. All these stats point towards one consensus: defense wins championships, and there's no evidence to how you can prove this theory wrong.
Once in awhile, the offensive powerhouse comes along that doesn't run out of fuel in time to run into a defensive stalemate, however that's once in a blue moon.
Defense gets it done, and the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins have it, giving us no reason to believe they both can't win the Stanley Cup. The remaining question, however, is who's defense is better? That's an entirely different debate though.