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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: Penguins' fate lies in hands of power play

| Saturday, April 14, 2018, 6:15 p.m.
The Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin splits a pair of Flyers defenseman during Game 1 of their Stanley Cup playoff first-round series Wednesday, April 11, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin splits a pair of Flyers defenseman during Game 1 of their Stanley Cup playoff first-round series Wednesday, April 11, 2018.

The Penguins power play failed to score in four man-advantage situations against Philadelphia in Game 2. The Flyers power play was 2 for 3.

Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan was succinct after: “The special teams was the difference in the game.”

But the Penguins' special-teams malaise goes beyond conversion percentages and even beyond the final scores.

If the Penguins don't start cashing in power plays, the Flyers will step up their physicality and stick-work to frustrate and injure the Penguins.

The Penguins' No. 1 power-play unit didn't score on four chances in Game 1. (The No. 2 group got a goal from Jake Guentzel.) In Game 2, the Flyers took two slashing penalties, two roughing penalties and committed several infractions that weren't called, as well as a bunch of borderline hacks and whacks.

The preferred liberty taken appeared to be slashes on the hands. That tends to slow down superior skill and stick-handling. Consider, too, Philadelphia's Claude Giroux elbowing the Penguins' Kris Letang in the head under the guise of accidentally colliding.

The Penguins didn't net on four power plays in Game 2, managing just three shots. So the Flyers will likely ratchet up such tactics even further in Game 3 on Sunday at Philadelphia.

That's not excuse-making or complaining. These are the playoffs. It's not up to the referees to curb that, it's up to the Penguins power play. If the Penguins don't threaten with the man advantage, there's no reason the Flyers' Wayne Simmonds shouldn't punch Evgeni Malkin in the head.

The Penguins power play led the NHL with a regular-season success rate of 26.2 percent. But it displays an odd kind of superiority.

It doesn't always put the foe under siege with flurries of shots. It's incredibly skilled and patient, looking for that one killer pass and finish. To be effective, it must score. It doesn't tend to generate big momentum swings otherwise.

The Penguins like to utilize a delayed entry on the power play. A drop pass finds a player hurtling quickly toward the offensive end, which upsets the opposition's gap control and gains the zone with speed.

But that entry seemed predictable in Games 1 and 2, and the Flyers got stops near the blue line and effective clears. The Penguins need a Plan B.

The Penguins don't necessarily like using Plan B. Not in general, nor with specific facets. They can't be blamed or criticized for that. The Penguins have won the last two Stanley Cups largely via Plan A.

Regardless of how, the power play must do better. Or the Penguins might end up missing a few fingers and brain cells while seeing their playoff run end quickly.

The Penguins' penalty-kill must also improve but probably won't. It was 17th in the NHL during the regular season with an 80.0 success rate, 20th the year before at 79.8. It's not a good PK, and hasn't been for some time.

Friday's loss was frustrating but shouldn't rattle the Penguins. They had multiple nailed-on scoring chances that missed, hit Philadelphia goaltender Brian Elliott or clanged off metal. (Three posts and a crossbar: It sounded like a gunfight in a bell factory.)

A 7-0 victory in Game 1 might have imbued the Penguins with a false sense of security, but that didn't damage what they did in Game 2. They didn't over-complicate their play or lack effort. Mostly the Penguins were unlucky, and Philadelphia played scads better than in Game 1.

Sullivan made one adjustment in Game 2 that should be maintained moving forward: He replaced Conor Sheary with Zach Aston-Reese on the Derick Brassard-Phil Kessel line.

The Brassard-Kessel-Sheary line has little grit or defensive acumen. Aston-Reese is better than Sheary in both areas and gives Brassard and Kessel a badly needed net-front presence.

Sullivan badly wants to achieve offensive balance by way of putting Kessel, Malkin and Sidney Crosby on different lines. But, in the attempt, he has to give each as much as possible to work with. Right now, Aston-Reese is a better player than Sheary and a better fit on Brassard's line.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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