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When Will Penguins’ Penalty-Kill Stop Coming Up Short?

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Pittsburgh Penguins Teddy Blueger

Teddy Blueger remembers when the Pittsburgh Penguins had the top-rated penalty-kill in the NHL.

Not that doing so requires exceptional powers of recall.

All he has to do is think back to Jan. 23, although odds are he’ll remember that day mostly because it’s when Winnipeg defenseman Brenden Dillon launched his left shoulder into the right side of Blueger’s head, driving it into the glass and breaking Blueger’s jaw.

It’s also when the Penguins’ exceptional efficiency while playing shorthanded began to slip.

And it still hasn’t recovered.

For when Blueger returned after missing 16 games, he did not perform with the same consistent efficiency at both ends of the ice that he had before being injured. What’s more, another strong penalty-killer, Zach Aston-Reese, was sent to Anaheim in the Rickard Rakell deal at the trade deadline, and a third, Brian Boyle, seemed to wear down as the season progressed and was not re-signed.

That’s a lot of change among the penalty-killing personnel, and the change in results when the Penguins are shorthanded has been even more graphic.

And troubling.

And impactful.

The Penguins slid from first to third in the league rankings last season, then allowed six goals in 19 shorthanded situations in their Round 1 loss to the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They’ve followed that by yielding at least one power-play goal in nine of their first dozen games in 2022-23. They rank 27th in the league, with a success rate of just 73.2 percent.

“It wasn’t the start we wanted to have,” said assistant coach Mike Vellucci, who oversees the penalty-kill. “But I think it’s made a lot of strides lately.”

Well, baby steps, at least.

The Penguins have given up two man-advantage goals in the past four games. That might not seem like an epic feat — mostly because it isn’t — but it’s a dramatic upgrade from their first eight games, during which opponents scored at least one power-play goal in seven of them.

Vellucci pointed to problems inherent in major turnover among penalty-killing personnel as a significant factor in the unit’s issues. Josh Archibald and Ryan Poehling were acquired during the offseason, and Kasperi Kapanen did not kill penalties last season.

“We have three new forwards, three new defensemen (Jeff Petry, Jan Rutta and P.O Joseph),” he said. “It takes a while for the continuity, the guys to get together and understand our scheme and our pressure penalty-kill. You have to have all four guys on the same page, and sometimes it takes a while to get used to that.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins should get one guy who understands the scheme very well back in the near future, as Blueger appears to be close to returning from an injury that has kept him out of the lineup all season.

No less important is that Blueger can take faceoffs, a job that, because Blueger and Jeff Carter have been injured, has handled almost exclusively by Poehling. He has taken 53 of the 83 draws the Penguins have had while down a man this season.

“(Blueger’s potential return) gives us another center,” Vellucci said. “That’s huge.”

It also will allow Vellucci to reunite a penalty-killing tandem that was effective for much of 2021-22.

“Teddy and (Brock McGinn) really read off each other last year,” Vellucci said. “They played most of the year together. When you have that familiarity with each other — you know what each other is thinking and doing — the communication is a lot easier. That will help.”

Probably, although there’s no way of accurately predicting exactly how much, once Blueger adapts to the pace of play after his long layoff.

Vellucci, for one, has reasonably high expectations.

“I think we can be good, if we’re on the same page and get some familiarity,” he said. “That’s the key.”

Blueger, meanwhile, seems certain that, the first 12 games of this season aside, the Pittsburgh Penguins can reclaim their place among the NHL’s most formidable penalty-killers.

“I think we can be top of the league, like we were last year,” he said. “That’s what we’re aiming at. Top 10, top five, probably.”

If they can do that, it would be something worth remembering.

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Rob
Rob
20 days ago

Yeah but can Blueger stay healthy? Seems to have been out a lot lately.