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Penguins Come Up Short on Power Play … in Every Way

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Washington Capitals Tom Wilson celebrates shorthanded goal 3/7/24

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play has been a major force in their season.

Usually, a negative one.

Oh, there have been occasional exceptions, like the man-advantage goal Sidney Crosby scored early in the third period Tuesday to ignite a five-goal rampage in what became a 6-3 victory over New Jersey at Prudential Center.

Those have been all too rare for a power play that was expected to be among the NHL’s most productive in 2023-24.

The long-term impact the points the Penguins picked up in Newark will have on their chances of grabbing the second wild-card playoff¬† berth in the Eastern Conference might not be clear for a while, but if nothing else, they spiked the stakes in the Penguins’ game in Washington Thursday night, when they will take on the team that holds the spot they are trying to claim.

While any number of variables could determine the outcome of this game, special-teams play often has been decisive.

More often than not this season, the Penguins’ power play has failed them, in a variety of ways.

Not only in its inability to generate goals on anything resembling a regular basis — they have scored on 14.8 percent of their chances with the man-advantage, good for 30th place in the NHL rankings — but also its propensity for allowing opponents to score while shorthanded.

With seven games to go, the Penguins have given up 11 shorthanded goals, second-most in the NHL.

“Obviously, it’s way too many,” Reilly Smith said. “You’d like to give up maybe, like three, in a season.”

Although the Capitals aren’t usually a threat to manufacture a goal while killing a penalty — they’ve only done it three times this season — Tom Wilson did it to open the scoring in Washington’s 6-0 victory at PPG Paints Arena March 7, arguably the nadir in a Penguins season that’s had more than a few low points.

While it’s impossible to measure the precise price the Penguins have paid in the standings for yielding so many shorthanded goals, since the entire course of a game can be altered by a goal that is (or is not) scored, it clearly has been steep.

“Anytime you give up (a shorthanded goal), it’s not just a goal,” Bryan Rust said. “It’s a big momentum swing.”

Consequently, it’s reasonable to assume that the Pittsburgh Penguins’ playoff chances would be considerably better if other clubs hadn’t scored so often while the Penguins had an extra man.

“It’s cost us points, for sure,” center Lars Eller said. “A handful. Seven or eight.”

While that obviously is just an estimate and/or educated guess, seven points would put the Penguins into third place in the Metropolitan Division, as well as the second wild-card spot.

That they have been so susceptible to giving up goals while they have an extra man only compounds their frustration at how the power play has underachieved.

The offseason addition of Erik Karlsson was expected to make an already-formidable collection of talent even more dangerous. Instead, the only thing the power play has done consistently through the first 75 games is to sputter.

The irony of the Penguins’ inability to score with the man-advantage is that several players cited a tendency to press too hard for a goal as a primary reason opponents have been able to generate shorthanded goals.

“I think we’re getting caught cheating for offense a little bit and not being diligent with numbers back,” Smith said. “We give up way too many odd-man rushes because of that.”

Rust agreed.

“More often than not, maybe we’re thinking too much offensively and there’s a mistake, or there’s a breakdown,” he said.

Sometimes, it doesn’t take a Zapruder-level assessment of the game tape to determine how a shorthanded goal comes about.

That was the case in Columbus last Saturday, when Kris Letang shanked a pass attempt, giving the Blue Jackets a 2-on-1 break.

“I fanned on the puck,” Letang said. “That’s a mistake.”

The breakdown isn’t always blatant, however. Occasionally, a team will get a shorthanded chance because of something as random as an unexpected bounce or carom.

“Sometimes, it’s personal mistakes,” Eller said. “Sometimes, it’s collectively. Sometimes, it’s that a guy breaks a stick on a shot and they get an odd-man rush. It’s happened lots of different ways.”

The bottom line, though, is that it’s happened all too often to the Pittsburgh Penguins this season. And that helps to explain how they ended up in such a precarious position in the closing weeks of the season.