The Pittsburgh Penguins couldn’t possibly remain as bad on the power play as they were for the season’s first 12 games. One game isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but the Penguins’ sudden snap towards average special teams production was as much an encouraging sign as it was fruitful.
The Penguins are still outside a playoff position but they are now tied for third-fourth-fifth place with 15 points. The Penguins lowball two regulation wins puts them in fifth. Just imagine where a few more goals and a few more PK stops would have them? If the Penguins are to make the playoffs in the jammed East Division, every situation has consequences.
The Penguins are tied with the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals. One of the three teams will not make the playoffs, and that is assuming neither the New York Rangers or Buffalo Sabres make a run.
The Penguins’ power play (perhaps) bottomed out at near 13% efficacy and somewhere near 23rd or 24th in the league, depending on the moment. But, a sputtering power play doesn’t cost goals.
The Penguins PK was also living on just this side of doom and gloom. It bottomed near 70% and also in the mid-20s league-wide. Sunday, goalie Tristan Jarry faced the Ovechkin missile from the LW circle for the first time in his career.
Jarry smiled before he answered. Ovechkin’s office can deliver business quickly.
“Yeah, you watch videos and tendencies and what their power play likes to do,” Jarry began with the obvious. “He’s a big threat. He’s scored a lot of goals. He’s a person you have to key on and be prepared for when he does shoot it.”
Jarry swallowed the pair of blasts from the dot, and the Washington power play, while it did score one PPG, was otherwise limited in its effectiveness. The PK stat has inched up to almost 75% over the past two games, which also coincides with Zach Aston-Reese’s return.
Aston-Reese has two goals in two games and has been on his toes since returning. We asked Mike Sullivan for his insights on the PK uptick.
“Zach is one of our better penalty killers. When he’s in the lineup, I think it helps our kill. He has great awareness. He’s a good shot-blocker,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He has a real good aptitude for the game defensively.”
Aston-Reese is a defensively solid player, but it’s not all about adding one PK member. The players who were wide open or uncovered near the net were many.
“We’ve made some adjustment on the penalty kill on how we’re trying to play,” Sullivan said. “I think clarifying those adjustments has helped the group … I think Mike Vellucci has done a nice job getting those guys on the same page so they’re comfortable and there’s clarity regarding their collective effort out there.”
We’ll parse Sullivan’s words just a tad.
It took the new assistant coach a little while to establish everyone’s roles and the scheme. Perhaps there wasn’t clarity in the beginning.
Pittsburgh Penguins Power Play
I think I’ve made jokes for the past 24 hours about the Penguins power play finally scoring. It was an 0-for-21 slide until Bryan Rust knocked one down. Not only did the Penguins squander 21 power plays, but they brutally wasted them, often without chances or even a semblance of threat.
The Penguins practiced and tried power play schemes with movement and tactics at the top of the zone. In the games, the PP had all of the success of sled riding uphill.
We asked Kris Letang about the PP.
“I don’t think the stats we have on our power play right now are indicative of what we’ve done, but obviously, last night, we moved the puck really well. We handled their pressure,” Letang said. “We came up with a power-play goal, but even on the first chance, we came up with a lot of chances.”
Bryan Rust drifted high into the zone then raced towards the LW circle. Letang hit Rust in stride, and a moment later, Rust squeezed a wrister between Vitek Vanecek and the near post.
The Penguins had a pair of glorious chances on their first power-play opportunity. With quick plays from the top, the Penguins created open players near the net. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel had pokes within feet of the net. If not for great saves by Vanecek, the Penguins easily would have had a power-play goal on their first crack, too.
For those who like the simple plower play, defenseman Mike Matheson ran the second unit, and shots were aplenty.
Check out the video.
The PP2 unit doesn’t worry about pretty—four shots in less than :30.
The Penguins achieved six wins with well-below average special teams play. With a few goals here or there and a few goals denied, the Penguins record would be a win or three better.
And therein lies the Pittsburgh Penguins best chance for improvement.