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Kovacevic: No. 1 issue Penguins must kill

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 11:12 p.m.
The Penguins' Matt Cooke practices Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, at Consol Energy Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
The Penguins' Matt Cooke practices Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, at Consol Energy Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Even in the context of an NHL lockout that created an awful lot of idle time for athletes far more conditioned to constant activity, it's entirely possible no one made less constructive use of that time than Matt Cooke.

Self-destructive might be a better way to put it, actually.

The man watched video, rewind upon rewind, of the Penguins' epic penalty-killing meltdown in the playoff loss to the Flyers last April.

“To be honest, I was wracking my brain over it,” Cooke was saying Tuesday with a shake of his head. “And you know, all I can come up with is that it's probably the worst performance we've had in my four years here.”

No probably about it. It was one of the worst in the history of Stanley Cup competition: In those six games, Philadelphia scored 12 power-play goals on 23 chances, a 52.2 percent success rate more befitting a free-throw percentage for one of the 76ers.

If that isn't the Penguins' No. 1 issue going into the cameo training camp set to start Sunday, I can't imagine what will be.

“I'd look at that video and go, ‘Why am I doing that? I didn't do that all year?' ” Cooke said. “Guys who had been on the kill all year, we did things we hadn't done. And, unfortunately, we couldn't stop it. It was crazy.”

Maybe, maybe not.

On one hand, Cooke's right: It was crazy that the Penguins owned the league's best penalty-killing figures over the past two regular seasons, only to utterly implode in a week.

On the other hand, it's not so crazy to think Dan Bylsma and staff need to become far more adaptive when facing a single opponent in the postseason.

And from there, it's not so crazy to think that back-to-back first-round exits didn't stem from lousy luck or timing.

Remember the Statue-of-Liberty, perimeter-only power play against the Lightning two years ago?

Right, 1 for 35.

Two such strategic failures in as many years, in the two most coachable facets of the sport, are too many. Things clearly need to change.

Some of that will come on the penalty-killing through new personnel.

Most prominently, Brandon Sutter will take over for Jordan Staal. Staal was an elite penalty-killer when that was his mindset, but the coaching staff felt he strayed late in his tenure. Sutter is defense-first to the bone. The Penguins just love the kid.

On defense, Matt Niskanen will take over for Zbynek Michalek, and that can only be a plus. (Literally.) I wouldn't mind seeing Deryk Engelland get duty, too, to clear the crease.

Another possible addition: Sidney Crosby.

No, really.

The captain has been all but begging for a chance through this lockout, repeating it this week. That should surprise no one. Nearly all of the truly great forwards in history, even Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, have killed penalties.

For that matter, why not try Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, one of the NHL's perennial leaders in takeaways?

If that pair hops over the boards late in the kill and pounces on tired opponents for short-handed breaks, it's a wholly different dynamic.

Nothing wrong with trying something new.

Goes for strategy, too.

Bylsma's greatest strength as a coach — and he's a good one — also can be his greatest weakness: He stubbornly sticks by his ways. That's wonderful in the nightly grind of the regular season, when consistently applied methodologies in Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre allow players to go where they should instinctively.

But playoffs are so very different. Opponents study tendencies more closely. They vary entire systems to exploit.

To that end, I find it highly encouraging to hear that Bylsma and his staff spent much of their idle time dissecting not only the Philadelphia debacle but also a few other teams' penalty-killing approach. Notably, they looked at the Devils, who held the Flyers' power play to 3 for 19 in the very next series. New Jersey succeeded with a moving box that cut off passing lines and created turnovers.

Don't expect to see that with the Penguins in the regular season. But to hear Bylsma, he's now open to pretty much anything beyond that.

He sounds ... humbled, I'd say.

“We're No. 1 on PK over the past two years but, obviously, when you look at the playoffs, it hasn't translated,” he said. “So yeah, it's fair to say we're taking a look at what teams have done well in the playoffs. We have to be ready for anything we could see when the games matter.”

Might want to start preparing for that now, then, right?

That's the view of Craig Adams, one of the Penguins' best.

“I don't think we want to change too much on a day-to-day basis, but I think we need to be a little bit more flexible,” he said. “So if things aren't going well and we find ourselves in that position again, we have a change we can make — a Plan B or C — that everyone on the team is already comfortable with. We need to prepare for a rainy day.”

Those showers have been showing up in April far too often.

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