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Mark Madden: There’s an easy way for Penguins to improve power play |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: There’s an easy way for Penguins to improve power play

Mark Madden
| Monday, January 14, 2019 7:54 p.m

The Penguins power-play unit ranks fifth best in the NHL with a conversion percentage of 25.8. It’s No. 1 on the road with a mark of 33.9.

But there are definitely flaws.

The minor problem: It doesn’t get enough opportunities. The Penguins have been on the power play 128 times. That’s sixth fewest in the NHL, only three more than third fewest. That’s odd, given the team’s skill. Either the Penguins don’t maneuver through traffic enough, or the referees don’t call enough or (most likely) a bit of both.

The major problem: The Penguins have allowed 10 short-handed goals, including one in each of their last two games. That’s most in the NHL.

That’s embarrassing. It could be crippling. It probably won’t be fixed.

The Penguins are 33 for 128 on the power play. Subtract those 10 short-handed goals, and they’re 23 for 128 for a 17.9 conversion percentage. That would rank 19th in the NHL. The Pens undo 30 percent of their power-play success by conceding shorties.

The Penguins power-play personnel are weak defensively.

Kris Letang is excellent defensively 5-on-5. But he takes chances when he plays the point with the man advantage. Letang’s blind, backhand pass led to a turnover, an odd-man rush and a short-handed goal by Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar Saturday night.

But Letang must try to create on the PP. That’s his job. He can’t be conservative.

Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel play the half-walls. They’re counted on to help defensively when the puck turns over in fashion opportune for the other team. The former isn’t always committed to it, and the latter isn’t any good at it. Sidney Crosby has defensive commitment and quality, but he plays down low. He’s furthest away.

The easy fix is to use two defensemen on the power play: Letang and Justin Schultz, when he’s healthy.

But who would coach Mike Sullivan yank off the No. 1 power play?

Malkin, Kessel and Crosby have to be on it. Patric Hornqvist is the net-front presence. Anyway, he plays down low and has a long way to go to get back. Same goes for Jake Guentzel when Hornqvist is hurt and Guentzel deputizes.

Personnel aren’t the issue. Puck management is.

The Penguins power play works high too often and too predictably. Getting the puck low emphasizes Crosby’s main strengths — and emphasizes Crosby, period. Crosby is fourth on the Penguins in power-play points and power-play assists. If it’s an exaggeration to call Crosby the unit’s fourth option, it’s only a slight one.

Crosby’s preferred spot on the PP is the right half-wall, but he’s rightly surrendered that position to Malkin for the good of the unit. Crosby is hockey’s best player down low — as long as the puck gets to him.

You’d figure the power play would funnel through Crosby more often. It doesn’t. Perhaps it should.

So the Penguins won’t change the power play’s participants. They probably won’t tweak the unit’s modus operandi. (It operates oddly in the first place. The Penguins’ PP almost never grips it, rips it then crashes the net looking for loose pucks. It constantly searches for the kill shot. It rarely makes the opposition scramble for most of the two minutes, but the puck ends up in the net a lot.)

Since tangible change is not likely forthcoming, the Penguins power play just needs to quit making mistakes.

They need to do so quickly, before Sullivan’s head explodes like that guy in the movie “Scanners.” Sullivan is mostly good at keeping his frustration from bubbling to the surface. But that’s challenged when all those short-handed goals are mentioned.

The power play needs to keep it simple. Make more easy plays. Use the defensive “conscience” Sullivan talks about. But that’s not the Penguins’ way.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show
3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM 105.9.

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