The Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play should be one of the most fearsome forces in the NHL.
Its No. 1 unit, as currently constituted, features three certain Hall of Famers, a reliable 40-goal scorer and a guy who has scored five times in the first six games of the season.
With that kind of talent, one might suspect that it capitalizes on chances with the extra man almost as routinely as NBA teams convert free throws.
Seems perfectly logical.
But it’s nowhere near accurate, at least through the first two-plus weeks of 2023-24.
The Penguins have scored on just two of their 16 man-advantages to date — a success rate of 12.5 percent that more closely resembles the slugging percentage of a major-league pitcher than anything from basketball — and have failed to manufacture a power-play goal in five of their six games.
Their efficiency (or lack thereof) with the extra man translates to the Penguins being in a five-way tie for 23rd place in the league’s power-play rankings.
That’s not the only reason they’ve stumbled to a 2-4 start, of course, but a few timely man-advantage goals could have tilted a few of those defeats in their favor.
The Penguins are aware of the power-play’s shortcomings — hey, they can read the stats sheet and watch video, too — but recognizing the problem is easier than correcting it.
Frankly, getting the power play on track against Colorado, which will visit PPG Paints Arena Thursday at 7:08 p.m., figures to be an enormous challenge. For while the Avalanche have been shorthanded 27 times during their 6-0 start, they have given up only two goals while killing those penalties.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t have the option of waiting until they’re dealing with a less accomplished penalty-kill to get the power play into a productive groove.
They need victories now, and scoring an occasional goal when they have a man-advantage would do a lot to make that objective more attainable.
Here, then, is a three-point plan to resuscitate the Penguins’ power play:
1. Limit perimeter passing
The No. 1 power play tends to move the puck around the outside of the offensive zone, almost as if its members are trying to set up an uncontested three-point jump shot.
That’s fine with the penalty-killers, for obvious reasons.
Perhaps the intent is to patiently wait for an opportunity to set up a teammate with a cross-ice feed, but usually, that approach does little more than kill the clock. And momentum.
Take care of that issue, and the next step toward rehabbing the power play is to …
2. Be selfish
The purpose of a power play is to score goals, not to pad teammates’ personal stats.
Every member of the top unit — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Erik Karlsson, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust — has a well-documented history of goal-scoring. And pretty much every one of them is guilty of overpassing on the power play, often while skipping a chance to launch the puck toward the opponent’s net.
It’s not necessary, or even prudent, to throw the puck at the net every time the crowd implores them to, but these Pittsburgh Penguins, skilled as they are, are not the fabled Soviet Red Army teams from long ago. They’re not able to routinely pass the puck into the net.
Oh, and when they do shoot, the Penguins should do everything possible to get it on goal. If that means taking a few miles-per-hour off the shot, it’s a sacrifice worth making.
Because putting the puck on the net will be a real plus if the Penguins can …
3. Establish a true net-front presence
The ideal guy to set up near the other team’s crease when the Penguins have an extra man possesses both size and skill.
Size matters because the larger the player, the more he can obscure the goaltender’s vision. Skill is important because he has to be able to take advantage of the deflections and rebounds that come with working in that part of the ice.
Whether the Penguins have anyone with all of the requisite qualities is conjecture.
Guentzel, for example, is fearless and an accomplished shot-tipper, but he checks in at a modest 5-foot-11, 180 pounds. If he’s going to get the best of a defenseman, it likely will be because of guile, not muscle.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have three large forwards — Jeff Carter (6-foot-3, 219 pounds), Radim Zohorna (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and Drew O’Connor (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) — who might merit an audition for the job, although none would be assured to thrive in all aspects of it, because there is more to it than simply being tall and wide.
Working the net-front is an art; it’s necessary to have a feel for where to set up — and how/when to adjust — to cause maximum distress and distraction for the goaltender.
That’s Job 1, because if an NHL goalie can get a good look at a shot, particularly coming from medium- to long-range, he’s probably going to stop it. Otherwise, he won’t be an NHL goaltender for long.
Setting an effective screen enhances the chances that a rebound — and some chaos — will result, and if the net-front guy has the hands to take advantage of those, it adds a productive dimension to the power play.
Could Carter, Zohorna or O’Connor — or anyone else on the payroll, for that matter — prosper in that role?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But the power play couldn’t be any less menacing with them involved than it has been for most of the past six games.