Pens' penalty kill still needs to improve to avoid playoff exit
There is a belief in the Penguins' locker room, in many NHL circles, and among oddsmakers in Las Vegas that coach Dan Bylsma's team won't suffer another early postseason exit this spring.
But there is a problem.
Despite boasting a galaxy of all-stars and future Hall-of-Famers — to say nothing of the Eastern Conference's finest record — the one weakness that destroyed the Penguins against Philadelphia last season never has been fixed.
The Penguins' penalty-killing unit was exposed against the Flyers and showed few signs of recovery during the following abbreviated 48-game regular season.
“Well, we certainly need to get better in a hurry,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Honestly, it just hasn't been very good this year. Normally it's a real strength for us, but for whatever reason, it hasn't been this year.”
Statistics only reinforce Niskanen's words.
The Penguins finished ninth, first, and third, respectively, in penalty killing during Bylsma's first three full seasons as head coach. This season, they finished 25th, killing only 79.6 percent of their shorthanded situations. They concluded last season by watching the Flyers burn their penalty-killing unit with goals on 12 of 23 power-play opportunities.
As for this season, Washington is the only playoff team with a worse penalty-kill percentage.
“We're just looking at the playoffs as getting a fresh start for the penalty kill,” said defenseman Mark Eaton, whose presence in the lineup has aided the Penguins' efforts on the PK.
There is no secret to beating these Penguins. Teams rarely have fared well against the Penguins (36-12) this season, but in their dozen losses, the undeniable flaw of this team has been evident.
The Penguins have permitted a power-play goal in nine of their 12 losses, hemorrhaging 16 power-play scores in those games. In their six road losses this season, the Penguins killed only 64.5 percent of the opposition's power plays.
Conversely, they have blanked the opposition's power play in 22 of their 36 wins.
“The good news is that we still have time to get everybody on the same page,” Niskanen said. “And if we can do that, we know we can get on a roll.”
While Niskanen suggests that the Penguins need to “get on the same page,” others are miffed that the Penguins have struggled in this department. Among some of the team's veterans, there remains a sense that the penalty kill will be there when it is required.
“We don't put too much stock in stats, percentages, things like that,” Eaton said. “It's a matter of key moments in games, getting kills in third periods in games that are close. That's what really matters — those times when you get big kills.”
Few changes have been made strategically from the 2010-11 Penguins that led the NHL in penalty killing. Many of the stalwarts from that unit — Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams and Chris Kunitz — remain.
Other than a midseason observation from the coaching staff that more aggression was required from the penalty killers, few changes have been made.
Yet there remains a belief among the Penguins that a switch can be turned on when the postseason begins.
“It's one of those things when it doesn't go right so you look at the film, look at what's gone wrong,” Dupuis said. “And it's not your fault. It's a lucky bounce, a deflection off your own guy, a rebound goal that goes two or three different ways and ends up on the stick of another guy. It can be a lot of things.”
The Penguins might be convinced that their penalty killing is in an unlucky slump, but the fact remains that better results in the playoffs are necessary.
“We know it,” Adams said. “We know that when the playoffs start, the PK must be better.”