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No easy fixes for struggling Penguins penalty kill

Jonathan Bombulie
| Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, 6:45 p.m.
The Penguins' Carl Hagelin plays against the Sabres on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, at PPG Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Carl Hagelin plays against the Sabres on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, at PPG Arena.

When an NFL defense forces a turnover these days, a celebration often takes place. The Steelers, for instance, are among the teams that have been known for pose for a fake family photo after securing an interception.

There's no time for such histrionics during a hockey game.

When Penguins winger Carl Hagelin blocks a shot or clears a puck out of danger on the penalty kill, he immediately has to hustle to the bench for a line change or get ready to defend the next scoring chance.

Rest assured, though, if the circumstances were different or the culture of hockey were more like football, Hagelin would be out there mugging for the cameras every chance he got.

He takes pride in killing penalties.

“The PP guys take pride in being out there and scoring goals. We gotta have that same mindset of not giving up goals,” Hagelin said. “I think the best PKers are like that.”

That's what makes the penalty-killing slump that has infected the Penguins in the last two weeks so personally painful to Hagelin, who is among the team's leaders in short-handed ice time.

When he sees they've given up two power-play goals in four of their last five games, he cringes.

“Every single guy on the ice has to be better, whether that's execution, details, blocking shots, being more aggressive. There's a lot of things we're not doing well right now,” Hagelin said. “We can go a minute-thirty on a kill where we're doing everything right and all of a sudden, all four guys make a mistake and it's usually a pretty obvious mistake.

“It's embarrassing.”

The Penguins haven't come upon their PK slump by accident. They've earned it. In the first 17 games of the season, they were giving up about 50 shots per 60 minutes of short-handed ice time. During the five-game slump, they're giving up 76.

“We've got to figure it out on the PK,” Hagelin said. “That's the bottom line.”

It would be easy to pin the struggles on player defections in the offseason. Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino, the top two forwards on the team in short-handed ice time last season, left via free agency. Bonino led Penguins forwards in blocked shots the last two years. Cullen is as crafty as they come.

Add in the loss of regular PK defensemen Ron Hainsey and Trevor Daley, and it's easy to suggest the Penguins just don't have the horses on the PK anymore.

But that's not entirely true.

Before the last five games, the Penguins ranked 14th in the league with an 81.3 percent success rate on the penalty kill. That's better than the 79.2 percent rate that left them ranked 20th in the league last season, even with Cullen, Bonino, Hainsey and Daley in the fold.

“They were good killers, but we have good killers now too,” Hagelin said.

No matter how beneficial Cullen, Bonino and company were to the Penguins penalty kill last season, they're not walking through the locker room door anytime soon. The solutions will have to come from within.

Coach Mike Sullivan has one suggestion. Stay out of the box.

Last year, the Penguins averaged 3.1 penalty kills per game. This year, it's up to 4.0.

“When you've got to kill five and six penalties a game, it's hard to keep teams off the scoresheet,” Sullivan said. “We're overtaxing guys. That's where it starts, for me.”

Defenseman Brian Dumoulin has another. Toughen up.

“I think we're doing a good job taking away seams and stuff like that, “ Dumoulin said, “but I think we need to get maybe a little grittier in front of our net where those goals are going in.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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