Kovacevic: No science to solving power play
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It's instructive, perhaps, that the NHL's most revolutionary power play was anything but revolutionary in concept.
It was 1981-82, three years before Mario Lemieux, that the Penguins rang up a then-NHL record 99 power-play goals on a ridiculous 24.5 percent success rate. And they did so with Randy Carlyle as a Norris Trophy-winning quarterback plus a good but not great supporting cast — Rick Kehoe, Paul Gardner, Pat Boutette, Mike Bullard, Pat Price and others — feasting off Eddie Johnston's unprecedented use of basketball-style picks mixed with several gallons of elbow grease.
As E.J. has put it many times since, “It wasn't rocket science. We did our thing, and we outworked everyone.”
Funny how that works.
“We have a lot of talented guys on the power play,” Paul Martin was saying Tuesday at Nationwide Arena and referring, of course, to the current guys. “And sometimes, their instinct is to make a play instead of just getting pucks to the net with traffic in front.”
Funny how that doesn't work.
The Penguins' power play went 0 for 5 in Game 3 on Monday. It hasn't scored in its past 13 opportunities, and it's 3 for 17 for the series. Which is to say nothing of the two short-handed goals conceded that essentially amounts to a plus-1 rating for 28 minutes, 44 seconds with the extra man.
Logic would dictate that can't happen to a power play blessed with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as bookends, James Neal or Chris Kunitz in the slot and Martin and Matt Niskanen on the points. Especially not when that power play ranked No. 1 in the regular season with an E.J.-esque 23.4 percent success rate.
But, as Martin suggested, there's more to it. And it's there where the Penguins have hit a bump against what, in all candor, is a mediocre penalty-killing team in Columbus:
1. Gain the zone
Early in Game 3, it was glaring that the Penguins were determined to skate one stride over the blue line, then pass laterally. It was just as glaring, of course, that the Blue Jackets casually picked off each puck and flicked it away.
But, as Martin said: “We got a lot better at it.”
That's because they began chipping the puck or skating it deeper, then setting up. They were quite good at this, actually.
2. Keep it moving
“We basically read off each other,” Neal said of the Penguins' setup. “We're in different spots all the time.”
All five skaters rotate as needed, anything to keep the puck moving on the perimeter. It's a practice that annoys most observers, but it has to happen to pull apart a tight penalty-killing box or, in Columbus' case, to make aggressive penalty-killers pay for over-committing. This also has been a strong suit.
3. Create traffic
Now we're getting warm.
Kunitz has done some of it, Neal not enough, which is why Kunitz stayed with the No. 1 unit when coach Dan Bylsma opted — wisely but overdue — to go all-defensemen at the points.
Others must get to the net, too. And when the only other forwards are Crosby and Malkin, yeah, that means them. No one expects either to go all Tim Kerr or Tomas Holmstrom, but nothing should stop anyone's stars from crashing for rebounds or even the occasional screen or tip. The latter, it's easily forgotten, was something Crosby did with great results before the concussion.
“I don't think we need to change a whole lot,” the captain was saying of the power play in general. “We just need to make sure we're not passing up shots, and we need to be hungry in front of the net. Those are the same habits we preached all year.”
The regular-season power play averaged 1.7 shots per opportunity. The playoff version is down to 1.4, mustering just 24 shots on 17 opportunities. Or about a shot per minute.
“The most important thing you need is an attacking mindset,” Neal said. “You've got to be shooting pucks and pressuring. When you do that, it puts the penalty-kill back on their heels. That's something we've done all year.”
Right, so, to repeat a familiar refrain by now, let's see it when it counts.
The Penguins are due for a power-play breakout against the Blue Jackets, and I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if it comes Wednesday in Game 4. But all it takes is one cringing glance back at the conference final vs. Boston — 0 for 15 on the power play — to see that this critical team strength will need to rise an extra notch to remain that way for a longer run.
See step No. 4.
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