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Penguins' power play shows improvement since Sullivan took over

| Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, 9:51 p.m.

When Mike Sullivan took over as Penguins coach on Dec. 12, he did so with a clear mandate.

Fix the power play.

General manager Jim Rutherford mentioned the power play over and over during the Saturday afternoon news conference where he introduced Sullivan as Mike Johnston's replacement. It was limping along at a 15.6 percent success rate and had to improve if the Penguins were going to get anywhere.

“This is part of the reason we have a new coach, is to see how he's going to deal with that,” Rutherford said.

How Sullivan has dealt with it has been fascinating.

At first, he made all sorts of changes to the team's power-play personnel.

He tried Evgeni Malkin at the center point. He split up the team's superstars and gave Phil Kessel his own unit.

The immediate results were underwhelming. In Sullivan's three games behind the bench, the Penguins went scoreless in 10 power-play opportunities.

Sullivan continued to experiment, though, and he eventually settled back on a personnel grouping that was identical to the one Johnston was using before his firing — Kris Letang at the center point, Malkin and Kessel on the half-walls, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist in the middle of the ice.

There were some differences in the way those players were deployed, including a noticeable increase in movement without the puck, but the changes weren't drastic.

One reason he went back to the grouping, he said Friday, was that the players in question prefer it that way.

“They want to play together as a group and we want what they want, but it has to work,” Sullivan said.

It has.

The suddenly red-hot power play is hitting at a 36.8 percent success rate (7 of 19) in its last six games.

Part of the reason for the turnaround simply is the nature of the power play. It tends to run hot and cold based on the whims of the hockey gods.

The Penguins, for instance, staggered out of the gate with a 6.5 percent success rate in their first nine games of the season, then heated up to the tune of a 23.2 percent success rate for their next 15 games, then slipped into an 0-for-19 funk in their next seven games.

“Sometimes it's just the goalie, puck luck, you can't really control that,” Letang said.

But there's more to it than that.

Hornqvist has been a goalie-disturbing dynamo in recent games. In a 5-2 win at Detroit on New Year's Eve, he was right in the grill of Petr Mrazek on both power-play goals the Penguins scored.

“They throw everything to the net, try to do chaos in front of the net and put it in,” Mrazek said.

From Sullivan's perspective, the biggest difference has been in the way his team retrieves loose pucks.

“I think what our players are finding is that sometimes, the best opportunities to score result off of those won puck battles, because usually teams are in vulnerable positions if we can win those pucks,” Sullivan said.

The effort required to win one-on-one battles isn't controlled by the whims of the hockey gods, so Sullivan figures being strong in that area is the best way to avoid inconsistency moving forward.

“It's such a big part of winning and losing and it's one of the things in the game that it's difficult to quantify. It doesn't show up in any of the statistics,” Sullivan said. “But it's those thankless jobs that help teams win and make you hard to play against.”

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

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