The Pittsburgh Penguins power play is scorching hot with goals in seven of its last eight attempts and goals in five in a row. Winger Phil Kessel is making it all go and is stacking points at a faster rate than last season, which was his career year. His work has been a sight to behold but it’s not the best measure of the Penguins strength in the quest for this group’s fourth Stanley Cup.
The Penguins and Kessel will ultimately be judged by the results of 5v5 production, which is still hit-and-miss.
Playoff success is generally determined by elements in something close to this order: Even strength goals, defensive effort, goaltending, penalty killing, and power play goals. Power plays become scarce in the second season and superior teams are almost always good PK teams, so even a dynamic power play is limited in its effectiveness. The Penguins earned 77 and 78 power play chances in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
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The Penguins converted 23 percent and 20 percent in those Stanley Cup runs. That’s not bad, but historically average. In fact, all Stanley Cup winners in this era have been within the 20 percent range or below in the postseason. Chicago and Los Angeles each won a Stanley Cup with an approximate 12 percent power play. The 2014 New York Rangers were in the Stanley Cup final with that same conversion range.
Boston won the 2011 Stanley Cup with a stone-cold power play (0.0 percent until later in the Eastern Conference Final). Otherwise, most winners are bubbling around “good” or below.
Last season, in Round 2 the Penguins had 20 power play chances (18 full two-minute chances) in Round 2 against Washington, which had 16 chances. Each team converted 20 percent. Call that a wash and the series was decided on even strength, defensive effort, and goaltending.
“My old coach Pat Burns used to say, you can’t train a cat,” Mike Sullivan joked about power-play streakiness. The Penguins power play may be red-hot right now but it will also go through stretches of frustration and zeroes.
So where does the lax cat Phil Kessel fit into all of this? Kessel is the Penguins key. Power play points win games in December, but those points aren’t as readily available in May.
So don’t get too overhyped by the Penguins power play run, led by Kessel. Their 5v5 production is the real sign of health. Kessel has 20 power play points, which are great, now. His 26 even strength points, or at least his even strength scoring chance ratio, is the thing to monitor.
Looking forward to the ultimate goal, Kessel and Derick Brassard are still tediously bad together. Their Corsi and scoring chance ratios are too often in the 30 to 40 percent range.
But, forget the Malkin-Kessel line. A high risk, high reward line which sometimes derails the team just isn’t necessary with an 8-2 record in their last 10 games. The Penguins have confined Kessel to the third line because he and Malkin exacerbated the other’s struggles. Factor Brassard’s lack of production and the Penguins had two middle lines which were chasing the game and making the game more difficult for the two lines which were working.
Dominik Simon is a creative grinder who won’t score goals commensurate with the goodly number of chances he helps to create, but he helps Malkin even as Malkin fights the game. With Simon beside Malkin, the Penguins are a better 5v5 team, because at worst they have one less negative line.
The Penguins may well be heading to a permanent parting of Kessel and Brassard if the pair cannot play well together. And that parting would naturally be with Brassard, not Kessel. The team needs production from the line. If they don’t get points, then they need chances. If not chances, at least engaged effort.
For the Penguins sake, Kessel is going to need to carry the third line. He’s certainly good enough. It just doesn’t appear the Penguins will be able to get that from Brassard, which is why the responsibility falls on the higher-ranking Kessel. And the measure will not be overall stats, because those include the power play but an eye test of effort and scoring chance ratios.
For comparison, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are doing damage at 5v5. Crosby has 35 points (12g, 23a) at even strength which makes those points more high-value. The Penguins still need more, or more consistency at even-strength from Malkin, Kessel, and Brassard.
The defensive effort, the penalty killing which is top-five in the NHL, and even goaltending are showing signs of being ready for a Cup run.
That is the reality of how Phil Kessel fits into the puzzle. He can propel the Penguins back into the conversation of Stanley Cup contenders by creating a viable third line. A few more one-footed wristers from the circle would help.
Enjoy the power play goals, but root for even-strength effectiveness. Then we’ll know the Penguins are a team worthy of another Cup.