The Pittsburgh Penguins are not traditionally a defensively stingy team with a lockdown penalty kill. Rare have been the flightless birds who have swum amongst the league leaders while shorthanded. The penalty kill is full of dirty jobs that involve pain and risk of injury. It is not for superstars and 30-goal scorers.
Sure, the Penguins have often been among the leaders in shorthanded goals over the last 40 years. Scoring is where the franchise has excelled, but the bruising, painstaking task of killing penalties, not so much.
Only 22 times since 1978 (which is all the farther StatMuse.com goes back) has the Pittsburgh Penguins penalty kill been over 80%. The Penguins have cleared 83% only 11 times and been above 85% only four times. The last time the Penguins finished a season above 86% was 2010-11, when the team set a franchise record of 87.8%.
Perhaps the best PK in the Sidney Crosby era featured a rookie Jordan Staal, as well as a second-year Crosby. The team killed 82.1% of the penalties and scored 14 shorties.
It wasn’t long before that young team won a Stanley Cup, but also not long before Staal wanted to spread his wings. Killing penalties requires shot-blocking, tireless skating, and strict attention to detail. Stray from your perch just a little, and a passing lane or shooting lane opens, even if former NHL defenseman Shane O’Brien has different ideas.
I keep hearing people in Vancouver saying the Canucks don’t have the personal to have a good PK. It’s not hard to kill in the NHL. Pay attention to details. Block shots. Get pucks out and give your balls a tug. #icebags @danriccio_ @RandipJanda @MissinCurfew
— Shane O'Brien (@ShaneOBrien55) November 20, 2021
We gave him points for the Letterkenny reference, even if it reads a bit abrasively.
The shin-bruising, sometimes dangerous role of penalty killing isn’t usually part of the Pittsburgh Penguins DNA. Scoring power-play goals or trying for shorthanded goals–that’s in the Penguins wheelhouse. But the dirty, gritty work is a different breed.
After sinking towards the bottom last season (77.4%), the Penguins coaches, including head coach Mike Sullivan and assistant Mike Vellucci, revamped the PK this season. New faces Brock McGinn, Brian Boyle, Evan Rodrigues, Chad Ruhwedel, and John Marino have contributed to the best PK in the NHL and killed 90.9%.
That’s a 13 point bump.
It doesn’t hurt that Teddy Blueger is winning over 53% of faceoffs this season–a career-high. Nor does it hurt that Marcus Pettersson is rejuvenated or the new faces on the PK are grasping Vellucci’s concepts.
Who would have thought Chad Ruhwedel and John Marino would be on the top PK in the NHL? Marino’s ice time has climbed to above 23 minutes on many nights as he’s now on the penalty kill.
Before the Penguins departed for western Canada, PHN asked Marino if he was “finding a little bit of joy” in the gritty, defensive role, which is a departure from the more offensive roles he’s had in the past.
“I don’t know, ‘joy’ was a funny way to phrase it, but I mean, yeah, the penalty kill has been great so far,” Marino replied. “I mean, everyone’s kind of committed blocking shots, to doing all of the little things, and if your teammates are doing that, it makes you want to do that, too.”
Because the Penguins are often sheltering their third pairing just a bit, top defenseman Kris Letang has been playing heavy minutes, even by his standards. So, the Penguins needed someone to fill those PK minutes. Marino has been the choice. His ice time has climbed to a 22:31 average in his third season, almost two minutes more than his first two seasons.
“So, you just kind of feed off each other. And obviously, (Tristan Jarry) has been rock solid behind us. We’ve come together as a unit,” Marino said.
It surely helps when your goalie is among the league leaders in save percentage and playing the best hockey of his career. A team’s best penalty killer is the goalie.
“Tristan’s played really well for us. He’s brought a real consistent game. I think it’s a direct correlation to his practice habits and work ethic in training camp,” head coach Mike Sullivan said on Tuesday. “…he’s worked extremely hard. He’s developed good habits, and I think it’s translated into the game. He’s played extremely well for us (and) he’s making timely saves for us each and every night.”
So, while finding joy in the penalty kill is a funny way to phrase it, the Penguins PK is making up for its snoozing power play, which has improved to 25th in the NHL at 14.3%.
Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins power play won’t find it funny as they defend the best duo in the world, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But perhaps with a few more shot blocks and doing the dirty work, they’ll get the last laugh.