The two power-play goals the Pittsburgh Penguins scored were an important element in their 3-0 victory against Winnipeg at PPG Paints Arena Tuesday night.
How they scored them could be even more important to how the rest of the Penguins’ season plays out.
The power play, of course, has been a source of near-constant exasperation for all concerned in 2023-24.
It certainly isn’t an issue of skill. For much of this season, the No. 1 unit included at least three players — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Erik Karlsson — who rank among the top offensive talents of their generation, at the very least.
But the Penguins routinely were guilty of stressing style over success. Sure, they manufactured a few power-play goals that claimed a prominent spot on the highlights shows, but that usually happened because they abandoned the basic formula for scoring with the man-advantage: Getting as many pucks and bodies to the net as possible.
That showed in the stats: Despite their exceptional offensive talent, the Penguins entered the Winnipeg game converting just 13.1 percent of their chances with the extra man, which placed them 31st in the 32-team league.
Tuesday night, their approach was different.
So were the results.
Whether their more traditional, blue-collar attack was an aberration — after all, it’s something the Penguins have done occasionally this season — or a long-overdue concession that their previous style wasn’t working is hard to say, but it’s no coincidence that the goals Jeff Carter and Bryan Rust scored after Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon was assessed a match penalty were possible because they were hanging around the Winnipeg net and teammates got the puck there.
Did either of those goals show up in the highlights because sheer artistry made them possible? Probably not.
But both made it onto the scoreboard, and that’s infinitely more significant.
Especially for a team looking at a significant gap between it and a playoff berth.
Coach Mike Sullivan said his club realizes where it sits in the standings — fifth in the Metropolitan Division and tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference — and he no doubt appreciates how a productive power play could improve the Pittsburgh Penguins’ situation.
Sticking with the way they worked with the man-advantage Tuesday night should make that possible.
Carter scored when he swept a puck past Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck after an Erik Karlsson shot from the right point hit the skate of Winnipeg defenseman Nate Schmidt before reaching the crease; Rust got his by setting up at the right side of the crease and tossing in a feed from Jake Guentzel.
Both were rewards for hanging around the net and having teammates get pucks there.
“You look at the goals we got, they stem from simple plays, put pucks at the net and have a presence there,” Sullivan said.
The short-term benefits of capitalizing on power plays tend to be obvious; in the Jets game, scoring twice during the five minutes Winnipeg was shorthanded because of Dillon’s hit allowed the Penguins to transform a tenuous 1-0 lead into a comfortable 3-0 advantage.
Perhaps even more valuable, though, is the deterrent effect that a productive power play could have an opponents.
“You want to make them pay for the action they took on our player,” Kris Letang said.
If the Penguins can produce consistently when they have an extra man, other clubs might be more reluctant to target some of their most skilled players for abuse. The Jets clearly paid a steep price for what Dillon did to Noel Acciari.
“For us to get two goals, it’s the best way to get back at them,” Guentzel said.
And regularly capitalizing on their power plays might be the best way for the Pittsburgh Penguins to get back into the Stanley Cup playoffs.