Power play, penalty kill help put Penguins on another 100-point pace

| Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, 10:15 p.m.

James Neal's negligent knee and Brooks Orpik's battered brain brought the Penguins back to their customary spot atop the NHL's hot list.

Now a spotlight is on a club that, despite injuries that have placed no fewer than five AHL regulars on the 23-man roster for the past month, is tracking toward another 100-point season under coach Dan Bylsma. It would be the Penguins' fourth in as many full seasons under Bylsma.

Before games played Thursday night, the Penguins were:

• Fifth in win (21) and average goals against (2.22)

• Sixth in points (43) and average goals (3.00)

• Second in penalty kill (86.8 percent) and first in power play (26.1 percent)

That — in addition to three 30-point scorers (Sidney Crosby, 43; Evgeni Malkin, 38; and Chris Kunitz, 31) — is what awaits the New Jersey Devils at Consol Energy Center on Friday night.

The Penguins were one of only 11 clubs — joining only Boston and Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference — with a 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio above 1.10, ranking 11th at 1.11.

They were at 1.35 in that category last season, but despite a drop-off, they keep winning because they are special when the advantage is with or against them.

“Whatever your strengths are as a team, you're going to, hopefully, be able to rely on those in times of adversity or when guys are out of the lineup,” winger Craig Adams said after a practice at Southpointe on Thursday.

Orpik will become the eighth regular to miss at least two games because of an injury. That does not include backup goalie Tomas Vokoun, who has yet to play this season.

Crosby said rankings shape outside opinions about special teams, but he is pleased with their performances.

“We've realized that, most times, that's the game,” Crosby said. “If you can be on the plus side of that, you at least give yourself a chance to win hockey games.”

The Penguins have won the special-teams battle in 15 games. They have played it even in 12.

Without defenseman Rob Scuderi, who has missed the past 20 games, they have killed 55 of 59 penalties. They have allowed opponents only one goal on 20 power-play chances in seven consecutive games also missed by defenseman Paul Martin.

Bylsma's current options for penalty-killing defensemen include a rookie 19-year-old (Olli Maatta), a defenseman who spent about 10 games as a forward (Deryk Engelland) and a former first-round pick who had failed to win a job in training camp (Simon Despres).

Marc-Andre Fleury has helped in a big way as the only NHL goalie to play in 16 or more games and stop at least 92 percent of shots faced while his team is shorthanded. He has turned aside 99 of 107 power-play shots for a .930 save percentage.

A goalie has to be a club's best penalty killer, as Adams noted.

Any power play would benefit from a true sniper such as Neal, who has 32 goals on the advantage the past three seasons.

Neal missed 15 of the opening 16 games, and the Penguins went 12 of 58 (20.7 percent) on the power play in that stretch. However, eight of those games were missed by power-play regular Kris Letang, whose fellow point partner, Malkin, was off to a slow start — 13 points in games Neal had missed.

Also, while all of that was going on, the Penguins were implementing a new defensive system that Bylsma said required a new approach from forwards.

“We've been able to play good defense, limit teams' opportunities,” Bylsma said. “I also think you've seen special teams be a big factor.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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