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Penguins grind through 'playoff hockey' officiating

Jonathan Bombulie
| Thursday, March 8, 2018, 6:33 p.m.

Early in Wednesday night's intrastate battle between the Penguins and Flyers, something strange and shocking happened.

It wasn't a highlight-reel play made by one of the game's stars. It wasn't a heinous act of jeering perpetrated by Philadelphia's notoriously rambunctious fans.

It was two men blowing a whistle four times.

The men were referees Tim Peel and Jean Hebert. The whistles they blew gave the Penguins four power plays in the first period.

It was a stunning contrast to the way Penguins games have been called in recent weeks.

For the first four months of this season, the Penguins went on the power play an average of 3.46 times per game.

Since Feb. 1, they've gone on the power play 2.25 times per game.

In a stark, unspoken condemnation of the way officials traditionally call the game in the NHL, this power-play downturn surprises pretty close to no one in the Penguins locker room.

“I think it's the time of year,” Sidney Crosby said. “You're into that last stretch where teams are kind of playing playoff hockey already. I think that's the way it's being officiated. We have to be aware of that. Obviously they're still going to make calls, but I think it's more of a playoff feel where there's less calls at this point.”

To an extent, Crosby is right.

On a league-wise basis, teams enjoyed 3.19 power plays per game before Feb. 1 this season and 2.86 after. That's an average of one fewer power play every three games. Refs are letting more infractions go as the season wears on.

But the phenomenon is hitting the Penguins much harder than most teams.

Before Feb. 1, they ranked third in the league in power plays per game. Since then, they rank dead last. They're averaging four fewer power plays every three games.

For the Penguins, this is a problem.

They have the No. 1-ranked power play in the league, clicking at 26.4 percent. Since Dec. 1, they have the No. 2-ranked penalty kill with an 86.8 percent success rate.

Mathematically speaking, the more penalties called in a game, the better chance the Penguins have to win.

“The power play, you love getting out there with an extra guy and making things happen,” Crosby said.

For the most part, it doesn't look like there is a lot the Penguins can do to reverse the trend.

It's not like referees wore black-and-gold undershirts beneath their zebra stripes in the first four months of the season, then decided to stick it to the two-time defending champs once the calendar hit February. Shrugging and hoping for the best seems like a reasonable response.

Coach Mike Sullivan isn't willing to throw in the towel quite so easily, however.

While acknowledging referee's calls seem to change with the seasons, he outlined some tactics the Penguins can use to try to get their power play on the ice more frequently.

“We're always trying to talk to our guys about challenging our opponents, forcing them to have to defend us,” Sullivan said. “I think that's usually when infractions occur, right?

“If you get a half a step on a guy off the rush, you try to take him to the net. If you beat somebody out of the corner, you try to get the puck inside. Usually someone's going to lay a hand on you. They're going to hook you or slash you or whatever it may be. You put your opponents in a position where they have to defend you. We talk about that all the time with our team.”

Defenseman Olli Maatta summed up the same sentiment more succinctly.

“If we go out there with a little swagger,” he said, “I think we can draw more penalties.”

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

The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (left) and the Flyers' Andrew MacDonald collide during the first period Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Philadelphia.
The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin (left) and the Flyers' Andrew MacDonald collide during the first period Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Philadelphia.
The Penguins' Bryan Rust (17) is hit by Philadelphia Flyers' Robert Hagg (8) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Philadelphia.
The Penguins' Bryan Rust (17) is hit by Philadelphia Flyers' Robert Hagg (8) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Philadelphia.
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