Penguins' penalty kill still ranks among the best in the NHL
The Penguins have dealt with adversity during the past two seasons, but through it all one aspect of their game keeps improving: Killing penalties.
It's among the most difficult challenges in hockey, so what makes the Penguins so good?
"First and foremost," defenseman Matt Niskanen said, "we just have good penalty killing kind of guys."
But other variables have led to success. Ask any hockey player about his penalty killing, and he will credit his goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury plays a significant role in the Penguins' penalty killing, his athleticism making tic-tac-toe goals — which are more common on the power play — a rare occurrence.
"Obviously, he is a huge part of it," said defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who recently called Fleury "the best goalie in the league, by far."
Coach Dan Bylsma's aggressive penalty killing philosophy also is effective. The Penguins' penalty killing has improved during each of Bylsma's seasons and is currently third-best in the league at 88.2 percent. The Penguins are 17 for 17 killing penalties in February and have blanked the opposition's power play in 39 of their 57 games.
"The way we are prepared is huge," Michalek said. "Our coaches have us ready every single day."
While Fleury and Bylsma's contributions to the penalty killing unit are hard to ignore, so too is Niskanen's theory.
General manager Ray Shero has put together a roster full of penalty-killing specialists.
"We have guys who are just incredibly committed to it," Niskanen said.
Right wing Craig Adams and center Richard Park, it could be argued, are in the NHL specifically because of their penalty killing. Left wing Matt Cooke and right wing Pascal Dupuis are two of the league's best penalty-killing forwards, their dedication to playing shorthanded evident each game.
Center Jordan Staal is, in the minds of many, hockey's best penalty killer.
"They give you the best combination of special teams in the league," Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said. "That penalty killing is just so, so good."
The principles of Bylsma's penalty-killing attack remain consistent with when he took over the team in 2009. His Penguins are aggressive to the puck and block shots and passes. There is nothing especially fancy about their approach; tenacity is the key.
The Penguins are off the NHL lead in penalty killing by less than 1 percent. They finished first in that category last season for the first time in team history.
"We're still one of the best at it," Michalek said. "And it feels good."
Just as they were last season, the Penguins are among the league's top penalty killing teams. In fact, they could repeat as the league's top-ranked penalty killing unit. Here is how they rank:
1. Montreal: 88.9 percent
2. New Jersey: 88.5 percent
3. Penguins: 88.2 percent
4. Los Angeles: 87.6 percent
5. New York Rangers: 87.2 percent
On the rise
The Penguins' penalty killing has improved each of the past five seasons:
2011-12 penalty-killing percentage: 88.2
2010-11 penalty-killing percentage: 86.1*
2009-10 penalty-killing percentage: 84.1
2008-09 penalty-killing percentage: 82.7
2007-08 penalty-killing percentage: 81.0