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Penguins penalty kill grounding Red Wings

| Saturday, June 6, 2009

Earlier in this Stanley Cup Final, somebody asked all-world Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom what he remembered about playing against Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.

It seemed like a legitimate question, seeing as Bylsma spent his 429-game NHL career in the Western Conference and was part of Anaheim's sweep of second-seeded Detroit in the first round of the 2003 playoffs.

Didn't jog Lidstrom's memory, though.

"I don't remember a whole lot," he said, prompting laughter.

Lidstrom then smiled and added: "I don't mean that in a bad way. I know he played hard and killed penalties."

It's probably a compliment that Lidstrom didn't remember, because penalty killers are like offensive linemen and weather forecasters: People only talk about them if they screw up.

Of course, there are exceptions - and if Bylsma's team wins a series that is tied, 2-2, going into Game 5 tonight at Joe Louis Arena, it's possible Lidstrom and a whole bunch of other folks will remember in great detail who was killing penalties for the Penguins.

First off, consider that Detroit came into this Final with a white-hot playoff power-play percentage of 25.7. It had torched the Penguins for four goals on eight tries during the regular season.

Now, consider this: The Red Wings could have taken a lead in Game 3 and put away Game 4 with second-period power plays.

Instead, the Penguins' 'PK' reversed momentum in both games.

Not that the Red Wings were giving them much credit.

"I don't know if it's so much what they are doing," said Detroit center Henrik Zetterberg after Game 4, "as us not executing."

Could be a bit of both, but make no mistake, the Penguins are doing a lot differently since the Feb. 15 coaching change.

At that point, their penalty kill was stumbling along at 80.6 percent.

Since then, it is humming along at 87.3 percent, including 84.5 percent in the playoffs.

The Penguins have not allowed more than one power-play goal in a playoff game. They have been perfect nine times in 21 games and are 20 for 22 in the past two series, including nine of 10 against the potent Wings.

One of the first priorities for Bylsma and his new assistant, former NHLer Tom Fitzgerald, was to transform a passive penalty kill. Both favored the aggressive approach they used as players.

"Dan and I think alike when it comes to 'PK,' " Fitzgerald said Friday, after the team's optional skate at Mellon Arena. "We wanted to be more aggressive. We call it smart aggressiveness."

That meant more of a forecheck, on the hope of disrupting teams before they could break out. It meant putting more pressure on the points and the puck carrier once the opposition gained the zone.

And it meant racing to win a battle any time a puck squirted loose or a player turned his back along the boards.

"We're jumping on the puck when we can," Defenseman Hal Gill said. "Other than that, at playoff time, it's all about guys going down and blocking shots and doing all those little things."

It helped when veteran penalty-killer Craig Adams was picked up on waivers. Bylsma and Fitzgerald also made winger Matt Cooke into a full-time penalty-killer.

"If that's one of your prime responsibilities, you take a lot of pride when that percentage goes up," Fitzgerald said. "I know I did as a player."

Gill and Rob Scuderi form the team's top short-handed defense pair. Jordan Staal, Adams, Max Talbot and Cooke are the top penalty-killing forwards.

The Red Wings came into Game 4 with a power-play goal in each of their previous seven road games, the fourth-longest playoff streak in NHL history. All they needed was one more, and the series might have been theirs. They led, 2-1, when Evgeni Malkin went to the box at 5:34 of the second period.

The Wings recorded only one shot, but with two seconds left in their power play, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik was called for tripping. Scuderi, then, made a brilliant play to block Zetterberg's pass to Dan Cleary in front. He cleared the puck to the point, where Malkin, fresh out of the box, knocked it away from defenseman Brian Rafalski and just missed on a partial breakaway.

The rattled Red Wings then did what they rarely do: They threw a puck to nowhere. Tomas Holmstrom's mindless ring-around around the boards from the right point glanced off goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's stick behind the net and to defenseman Mark Eaton, who made a quick pass to Talbot, who sent Staal up the middle against Rafalski.

Three Detroit forwards were caught deep in the Penguins' zone. Lidstrom was flat-footed at the blue line. Staal finished the play with a gorgeous goal that sparked an electrifying Penguins' rally.

Once again, the Penguins' penalty kill had changed a game.

Maybe a series.

Additional Information:

Big change

The Penguins' penalty kill before and since Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as coach Feb. 15:

Before: 80.6 percent

Since: 87.3 percent

Going in for the kill

The Penguins' top six penalty killers, in terms of shorthanded time per game:

Player -- Time

Rob Scuderi -- 2:43

Hal Gill -- 2:29

Jordan Staal -- 2:27

Craig Adams -- 2:20

Max Talbot -- 2:16

Matt Cooke -- 1:52

Additional Information:

Staal quote

'I watched it right after the game, just one time. It looked pretty cool. You can't beat one of those, I guess. It's definitely something special. They all count, but it's definitely nice to have a good one.' -- Penguins center Jordan Staal, on his first Stanley Cup Final goal, a short-handed tally the tied the Game 4 score, 2-2, on Thursday at Mellon Arena

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