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Molinari: Want to Wake Up Power Play? Start by Shaking it Up



Pittsburgh Penguins Evgeni Malkin celebrates with Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby

CRANBERRY — The Pittsburgh Penguins don’t have the least productive power play in the NHL.

They are, however, moving in that direction.


Their 0-for-2 performance during a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena dropped their success rate for the season to 16.2 percent, which places them 28th in the league.

They still have a bit of a cushion over Columbus (15.4), Anaheim (15.2), Montreal (14.9) and Philadelphia (13.9), but considering that the Penguins are 0-for-14 with the extra man during their past six games, that might not be the case for long.

And there’s at least one other thing that separates them from the clubs beneath them in those rankings: They’re the only one with two guaranteed Hall of Famers on their No. 1 power play, along with a couple of other guys who might make it into such conversations in the future.

Trouble is, though, power-play production is not a career-achievement issue.

The Penguins’ top unit — which generally consists of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust — is one of the NHL’s most imposing on paper.

On the ice, it’s not even close.

The greatest challenge it has presented to opponents for most of this season is finding a way to avoid snickering when the Penguins are awarded a man-advantage.

As was the case during the Hurricanes game, the team that’s shorthanded is more likely to generate quality scoring chances than the Penguins’ power play is. Witness the pair of 2-on-1 breaks the Hurricanes had while killing a tripping minor to Jesperi Kotkaniemi early in the second period.

Carolina finished the game with two shots on goal during Penguins power plays, which is precisely two more than the Penguins put on rookie goalie Pyotr Kochetkov while they were up a man.

Which is just the latest bit of evidence in a growing mound that Mike Sullivan should give the top power play an infusion of fresh talent.

Not because other guys necessarily are better than the ones currently there, but because sticking with a power play that rarely produces more than exasperation probably is the single biggest threat to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ chances of extending their streak of 16 consecutive playoff appearances.

Sullivan tinkered a bit recently, bumping Jeff Petry up to the No. 1 unit and dropping Rust to the second group, but abandoned that until illness forced Letang to miss the Carolina game.

Interestingly, Petry did figure into a power play-style goal during the final minute of regulation, after the Penguins replaced Tristan Jarry with an extra attacker. Petry threw the puck toward the net from the right point and Guentzel deflected it past Kochetkov to force overtime and earn a point for the Penguins.

That wasn’t a power-play goal because both teams had six guys on the ice (Carolina’s sixth was its goalie), but it played out the way a lot of man-advantage goals do.

That started with launching a puck toward the net, something the Penguins — especially the No. 1 unit — do all too infrequently during power plays. Frankly, they sometimes look as if they expect a jolt from a shock collar if they dare to take a shot.

That’s especially true of Letang, who has an excellent shot but routinely declines to use it, opting to move the puck to a teammate.

He’s hardly alone in that, however. The Penguins usually seem intent on trying to pass the puck into the net, rather than shooting it there.

Sullivan’s reluctance to reconfigure his top unit intact is not a surprise. He’s extremely loyal to its members, and considering how they contributed to the Stanley Cups the Pittsburgh Penguins won during Sullivan’s first two seasons behind the bench, it’s completely understandable.

There almost certainly would be some bruised egos if fixtures on the No. 1 power play lose their spots, but this is a bottom-line business and production matters. And, frankly, if any player is more concerned about his personal pride than he is about the success of the team, there is a problem that runs deep and transcends a lifeless power play.

That doesn’t mean that moving personnel around will solve the Penguins’ power-play issues, but when a team has scored four man-advantage goals in 15 games, there’s not much that can be done to make the situation worse.

So why not bump Rickard Rakell, who is tied for the team lead with two power-play goals despite averaging less ice time (1:57) when the Penguins are up a man than four other forwards, from the second unit to the first?

And why not do the same with Jason Zucker, whose offensive output has dried up of late — he doesn’t have a point in five games — but whose relentless, high-energy style could add a different dimension to the No. 1 group?

Something clearly has to change with the power play, if the Pittsburgh Penguins hope to have the kind of season of which they believe they are capable. And moving around some personnel would be a good place to start.