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Sports

Penguins rack up crucial points via overtime wins

Jonathan Bombulie
| Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, 6:09 p.m.
Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson covers the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin in the third period Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson covers the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin in the third period Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins' Phil Kessel takes a shot against the Canucks in the third period Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Phil Kessel takes a shot against the Canucks in the third period Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin works the puck again the Burins in the first period Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin works the puck again the Burins in the first period Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

If Penguins fans are still in need of another reason to be outraged Phil Kessel was left out of next weekend's All-Star Game in Tampa, here's a good one.

The format of the event, for the third consecutive year, is a three-on-three mini-tournament. Kessel leads the league in three-on-three scoring this season with two goals and two assists. Think he might have come in handy if the Metropolitan Division intends to try to win the thing?

In the grand scheme of things, of course, an All-Star Game victory doesn't really mean much. In fact, Kessel's three-on-three heroics are worth noting for a much more important reason.

They're a big reason the Penguins are in the thick of the race for a playoff position in the Eastern Conference despite a lackluster first half of the season.

The Penguins are 7-2 in overtime this season and 2-1 in the shootout. If some of those wins had gone the other way, the Penguins would be in a much deeper hole than they are.

“Those are huge points,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Gotta get that extra point.”

When the league went to three-on-three overtime in 2015, it looked like the format would be a perfect fit for a skilled team like the Penguins. For the first two years of its existence, though, the Penguins were only OK in OT, going 6-6 last year and 6-4 the year before that.

This season, it's been a different story. Their seven overtime wins lead the NHL. The combo of Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, each of whom has two overtime goals, is the most dangerous in the league. Sidney Crosby also has an overtime goal this season, and had another waved off for goaltender interference last month against Columbus.

That stands to reason. The most skilled players on the roster should thrive with so much open ice to work with.

“I think we are pretty confident,” winger Conor Sheary said. “When you have Sid and (Kris Letang) and Geno and Phil and those guys on the ice in open areas, they can be pretty dangerous.”

Sheary and Matt Hunwick also have overtime goals this season, however, which is a testament to depth of skill.

“After those first few shifts, you're trying to find a third or fourth pair set of guys to go out there and try to give those guys a little bit of a breather,” winger Bryan Rust said. “You've got to have guys who can go out there and make things happen offensively but aren't going to crumble under the one-on-one defense.”

When they have the puck, the Penguins specialize in making defenses crumble in one-on-one situations.

Kessel, for instance, is known to voluntarily leave the offensive zone, retreating to the red line to gain speed and mount another rush for opponents to try to defend. It's a move that takes confidence to pull off, and that's something the Penguins don't lack.

The results are undeniable. The Penguins have outshot opponents 17-11 in three-on-three situations this season and have a remarkable shooting percentage of 35.3 in overtime.

“When you have the puck, it's a lot of fun,” Sheary said. “You're just trying to find some open ice, and there's a lot of it out there.”

They're also among league leaders in shootout effectiveness, connecting on 5 of 9 tries.

“I think a big part of the shootouts is just the high-stakes environment and the pressure associated with it,” Sullivan said. “The guys that are good at it, they handle it well. We've got some guys that are pretty good at it, so we're fortunate.”

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

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