CRANBERRY — The Pittsburgh Penguins power play isn’t as bad as we think, or at least that’s the feeling in the locker room where defenseman Kris Letang pushed back on the gloomy outlook.
The Penguins’ man-advantage ranks 26th in the NHL and is converting just 12.5%. The 0-for-5 performance against the New York Rangers in the 1-0 loss was a flashpoint for coach Mike Sullivan, who tore up the script after the game.
For the first time in recent memory, Sullivan separated Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby and tried to balance the two power-play units. That configuration lasted a full game (the loss to Buffalo) before coaches reconfigured the units again, putting Malkin and Crosby together with Erik Karlsson, Jake Guentzel, and Radim Zohorna.
Before the end of the 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, coaches put Kris Letang on top of the power play but re-installed Erik Karlsson there Monday at practice.
The Penguins coaches are looking for something, though Letang pushed back when Pittsburgh Hockey Now asked if he could recall such power play struggles.
“Sometimes you go through phases like this. You guys mostly look at the numbers, which is not an indicator of the power play,” said Letang. “Obviously, you want your power play to be a difference and one of these guys to score the big goals and put you ahead in the games or tie the games. But sometimes, it just doesn’t go in. We have chances. We hit the post — We think (things are not that bad).”
Numbers vs. eyes, and the eyes have it. While the metrics showed scoring chances, the scoreboard didn’t show goals, nor did the games feel a surge in Penguins’ pressure or momentum.
“Our numbers at the beginning of the year weren’t great, but they suggested that we were creating the most in the league,” Letang said. “So what does that mean? Like, what do you do? Do you change it because the puck doesn’t go in, and you’ve got the most chances in the league? It’s the same thing with a goal scorer. A goal scorer will score goals, and at one point, he gets (cold). And do you think he’s a bad scorer?”
Coaches used yet another new configuration Monday, though the latest might have the most promise. Joining the top unit was Bryan Rust, who wasn’t used on the power play for most of last season as his role switched to penalty killer. He was a full participant at practice and appeared on track to rejoin the lineup for the first time in a week.
Rust hasn’t been a part of the power plays this season, either. However, the recent acknowledgments by Sullivan and Karlsson that the unit needs more puck retrieval will play into Rust’s game.
“I’m out there working hard, trying to make plays when they’re there,” said Rust. “Get loose pucks when I can. Bang in some rebounds. Tips. Screens. I’ll do whatever I can to score some goals.”
That simple and ugly mentality has been missing. Perhaps not coincidentally, so have the results.
The Penguins winger will immediately add a few gritty elements that have been missing. If it matters, the Penguins’ top power play, which often struggles even in practice, scored a couple of goals, including Jake Guentzel burying a rebound after good zone time.
Acciari scored his second goal of the season Saturday and tied the game in the second period. It was a beaut, too.
Acciari plucked the puck off the back wall, stepped to the goal line, and whizzed a shot over Toronto goalie Joseph Woll’s shoulder. It was a perfect top-shelf shot. Has the fourth liner pulled that move before?
“I just wanted to get a puck on the net and saw a little opening there,” Acciari said. “Matty (Nieto) had a good screen in front — the moving screen — And I’ve shot on that guy a couple of times, but I don’t think he was expecting that.”
The Penguins’ fourth line was on the ice for the tying and winning goals Saturday. It was a departure from the offensive silence that has largely engulfed the bottom six forwards this season.
We’ll have more about the Penguins’ third pairing in the coming days, but the new third-pair defenseman, John Ludvig, is adjusting to the NHL game.
Ludvig, 23, has played in the last three games, bringing his NHL total to four games. Make no mistake, he was frustrated that he was knocked out of the lineup for a couple of weeks after trying to freight train Radek Faksa, who was also at full speed on Oct. 24. However, he may not have learned his lesson.
“I still might try and do that,” Ludvig said with a laugh. “Hopefully, it works out better next time.”
The feisty D-man is left-handed but has been playing the right side. He admitted it’s not ideal, especially when the Penguins’ third pair draws the defensive assignments.
“It’s tough. There’s no time (to flip to the forehand). You’re stuck on your backhand,” Ludvig conceded.
That means more chips off the wall, off the glass, or short moves when available. Ludvig has held his own, though he’s still waiting for his first NHL point. His advanced Metrics show just 28% of his shifts have started in the offensive zone, but he’s been on the ice for just one goal against (and one for).
Not bad for a defenseman making his first NHL starts.
“It sucked being out to start the year, especially my first NHL game. I was playing (well) — It was a bit disappointing to be out, but since being back, I’ve been feeling better every game and starting to feel more confident.”