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Penguins' shooting percentage could be headed for rise

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, 7:15 p.m.
Ducks goaltender John Gibson makes a save on the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin in the first period Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Ducks goaltender John Gibson makes a save on the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin in the first period Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

Riley Sheahan found a puck in the neutral zone, slalomed between a pair of defenders as he skated up the left wing, reached the faceoff dot and released a shot.

It zipped over the right pad and under the blocker of Tuukka Rask, the combination of an accurate shot and shoddy goaltending bringing the PPG Paints Arena crowd to its feet.

It was precisely the kind of goal the Penguins had been begging for for the better part of the last three months.

Not because it tied the score in the third period. Not because it enabled the Penguins to head into their CBA-mandated five-day off week with a 6-5 overtime win over Boston and a two-game winning streak. Not even because it was a goal from the third line, which had been a sore spot in the first half of the season.

It was a memorable moment because it illustrated just how adversely the Penguins had been affected by their poor even-strength shooting percentage in the first half of the season and how they can reasonably expect their fortunes to improve in the second half.

The Penguins hit their break with a 6.24 percent even strength-shooting percentage, worst in the league.

Of their top 12 forwards, only two — Sheahan and leading scorer Phil Kessel — had a better even-strength percentage this season than they did last year.

Sidney Crosby's dropped from 15.9 to 10.3, for example. Evgeni Malkin's tumbled from 18.3 to 8.8.

In the first half of the season, the puck simply wasn't going in for the Penguins.

“Last year, I felt like a lot more was going in for us,” said winger Conor Sheary, whose percentage fell from 15.6 to 11.7 “I don't know if it's bad shot selection or we're missing our opportunities, but that's something that we've got to keep working at. We're getting shots. We're getting chances. We just have to start putting the puck in the net a little more.”

The Penguins partially are to blame for their poor numbers, of course.

They probably could improve their shooting percentage by getting more net-front traffic to increase their chances of scoring on tips and rebounds. They also could force more turnovers in the defensive zone to increase their share of odd-man breaks going the other way.

But most importantly, they could just stay patient and wait for math to take its course.

Despite how badly they've struggled to produce offense at even strength, the Penguins rank in the top 10 in the league in shots, scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances, according to naturalstattrick.com.

If those metrics stay healthy, there's a very good chance the Penguins' even-strength shooting percentage will move a lot closer to league average, which has been around 9 percent each season this decade, by the end of the year.

Commonly, people would say the Penguins are in a position where their puck luck is due to even out, but that has negative connotations.

In the first half of the season, they weren't a blameless, unlucky group struck down by the whims of the hockey gods. In the second half, the puck fairy isn't going to make sure opposing goaltenders luckily bungle all their shots.

They're just in a position where, most likely, math will be their friend as they make a second-half playoff push.

“As a player, you know when you're creating enough chances to score goals. That's been the case for the last couple of weeks, for myself at least,” said winger Carl Hagelin, whose percentage has fallen from 5.3 to 2.7.

“It's not one of those things where you sit back and the puck's going to land on your stick and you pop it in, but you keep working. Keep doing what you've done in previous years that helped you score goals. Those are the times you can look back to.”

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

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