Additions recharge Penguins' power play

| Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It was an encouraging goal because of when it was scored and because of how it was scored.

Better still, the suddenly surging Penguins suspect there's reason to believe there are more where that one came from.

"The thing that I like the most is that we have a net-front presence," interim coach Dan Bylsma said Monday.

He was talking about the power play in general and the positioning of new guys Bill Guerin (top of the crease) and Chris Kunitz (high slot) in particular.

Guerin's ability to hunker down in goaltender Jose Theodore's lap Sunday afternoon in Washington had been a critical component of the power-play goal scored by Sergei Gonchar that broke a 1-1 tie in the Pens' latest grudge match with the Capitals. With Guerin setting a screen, Gonchar blasted away from long range and found the net, much to Theodore's surprise and frustration.

"Billy lost his stick and figured out he didn't need a stick to do what he was supposed to do, which was stand in front of the goalie and be that presence," Bylsma said. "When you have that presence, now shots (from the point) are dangerous, there are second-chance opportunities."

That's a theory that's withstood the test of time but isn't always easy to put into practice.

There are a few players who understand job one in the slot is screening the goaltender and that tipping in shots from the point is a bonus.

And there are fewer players still who understand what they're trying to accomplish and have the ability to slide with the play and repeatedly position themselves as the goalie would while the puck is being rotated.

Last season, Ryan Malone had it figured out.

This season, Jordan Staal was learning the nuances of slot play with the man-advantage.

Staal, at 20, is still a work in progress.

Guerin, at 38, is a master craftsman.

His right-handed shot and Kunitz's left-handed approach should afford the Penguins more one-time opportunities on passes from either side on the power play.

Another key is Gonchar, whose willingness to shoot and ability to shoot with his head up and with accuracy helps make goalies susceptible to screens.

The power play has clicked at an 18.4 percent rate in the 10 games Gonchar has played since his return from shoulder surgery, which is a slight improvement from the 16.3 clip the Penguins have converted at for the season.

But with the rededication to an approach that works and the pieces in place to make that approach work, the power play may be on the verge of a power surge.

Should that come to pass, the resurrection of what had been perhaps the most disappointing team in the league will be all but complete.

"The best power play in the league for the past 10 years has been the Detroit Red Wings," Bylsma said. "You can talk about the skill they have, but what they have is the best net-front presence in the league (Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom).

"That's something we now have and have addressed. Now we have two guys in that area and that opens up the ice for the other players to do their thing, as well."

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