The Penguins’ drive to a playoff spot after the All-Star break already has significant momentum, thanks to seven wins in the last nine games and the dominant Penguins power play reinforced by Phil Kessel.
Kessel is in the midst of his best season with Pittsburgh and is on pace to record a career-high 93 points despite a recent even strength move away from both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Kessel is third in the NHL scoring race and leads all players with 33 power play points. That’s three more than he recorded in 82 games last season. Absent vital injuries, there’s no reason to believe Kessel, and the Pittsburgh power play won’t continue to shape the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The need for better five-on-five play from the Penguins has hardly disappeared. But increasingly, the Penguins power play is looming as a historical tool for the Penguins to use in the making up for other parts of their game that haven’t been as good. In fact, coupled with an increasingly good penalty kill, the Penguins’ special teams give them an advantage over every team vying for a playoff position.
The Penguins’ surge back into a playoff spot has been led primarily by the production of its biggest stars, as Kessel, Crosby, and Malkin have combined for 47 points in the last nine games. The platform for 53 percent of that production has been a power play clicking at a league-leading 27.1 percent, with Crosby (28 points) and Malkin (26) sitting second and third, respectively, in power-play points behind Kessel.
The Nuts and Bolts
From his position on the left half-wall, Kessel this season has found a better balance between looking for and forcing passes on the power play and shooting the puck. Given Kessel’s impressive release and finishing pedigree, it’s a significant development. He shares the team lead with Malkin in power play shots (52; he had 55 last season) and is not setting up as wide or deep in the zone as he frequently did one season ago. His speed and vision also have contributed to the Penguins’ ability to enter the zone and set up the power play.
On the right half-wall, Malkin continues to be the biggest scoring threat with 12 power play goals, three more than Kessel and is on pace to record a career-high 20. Crosby has been instrumental in winning faceoffs and board battles, making lightning-quick puck retrievals and distributions from pucks along the wall and playing lower in the zone where he is comfortable getting pucks to Patric Hornqvist in front or Kris Letang at the point.
Letang, of course, is not running this power play but serving as the outlet for everyone else on the first unit when pressured and as a puck distributor. His shot is not a particular threat, but his ability to patrol the width of the ice along the blue line and read where his teammates are going with pucks is essential.
Hornqvist is taking away the vision of goaltenders, angering them when possible by staying in their face and of course, tipping home pucks and finding rebounds.
There’s a little bit of everything on this unit and some unpredictability as well, with Kessel, Crosby, and Malkin just as likely to try passes through the box that come with high degrees of difficulty as they are to make simple plays.
Pittsburgh is also benefiting from this unit’s ability to deliver power play goals in games where they aren’t getting many opportunities. The Penguins, yes, are third in the NHL in the number of power play opportunities, but their success is not merely volume-based. They’ve received three or fewer chances in 27 of their 51 games, yet they’re converting 26.1 percent in those games; in games where the Penguins get two or fewer power play chances, they’re converting an astonishing 40.0 percent.
So the specter of the power play struggling in post-season play, where there are fewer penalties called, does not exist at this point.
Perspective on Penguins Power Play
–Since modern expansion began in 1967, Pittsburgh has scored more PPG (3,402) than any other team by a wide margin. Power play success is a Penguins’ hallmark, and this team is on pace to have the best power play in team history. The 1995-96 team converted 25.9 percent of its chances.
–That 1995-96 team, by the way, was the last in the NHL to finish a season with the top three producers of power play points: Mario Lemieux (79), Ron Francis (54) and Jaromir Jagr (51). At the moment Kessel, Crosby, and Malkin sit 1-2-3.
–The last team to finish a season with a power play converting 27-plus percent of its chances was the 1989-90 Calgary Flames at 27.7 percent. Thus the Penguins could finish with the highest league conversion rate in 28 years.