RALEIGH, N.C. -- It was, for most of the 2008-09 season, an equation that simply did not add up.
How the Penguins could assemble a power play with so much talent, and end up with so little productivity to show for it, was a mystery.
A frustrating, and often costly, one.
But even though it has gone largely unnoticed lately -- presumably because folks are preoccupied with watching Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby offer up dueling on-ice essays on the theme of "What brilliance means to me" -- the Penguins' power play has morphed from an oxymoron into a major asset.
It is one of the reasons, though hardly the biggest, the Penguins have a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference final and a chance to close out the series with a victory at 7:38 tonight against Carolina at the RBC Center.
After going 4 for 37 with the extra man during the first seven games of these playoffs -- including a run of four games in a row with no power-play goals -- the Penguins are 12 for 41 with the extra man in the past nine. That includes a 3-for-12 showing in three games against the Hurricanes.
• Matchup: Penguins at Carolina Hurricanes, 7:38 p.m. today, RBC Center, Raleigh, N.C.
• TV, radio: Versus, WXDX-FM (105.9).
• Series: Penguins lead, 3-0.
• Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Cam Ward for Hurricanes.
• Penguins: Are on 4-0 streak. ... Five road wins leads league. ... Have league-low 11.2 penalty minutes per game.
• Hurricanes: Franchise has not been swept in playoff series since then-Hartford by Montreal in 1989 division semifinal. ... Are 4-3 at home. ... F Jussi Jokinen is third overall, first among active players, with 25.9 shooting percent.
• Hidden stat: Penguins' 113 shots in this series the most Hurricanes have given up over three games since Oct. 19-25, when they gave up 128.
"It's definitely improving," point man Sergei Gonchar said yesterday.
And the power play's greatest impact might still be coming.
If the Penguins can avoid becoming the third team in NHL playoff history to lose a series after building a 3-0 lead, and if Detroit can close out the Western final against Chicago -- the Blackhawks never have overcome the kind of 3-1 deficit they now face -- the Penguins' power play could give them one of their few clear edges in a Cup final rematch with the Red Wings.
Although Detroit's major flaws could be detailed in 60-point type on a notecard with plenty of space left over, the Red Wings' penalty-killing has fluctuated between awful and abysmal most of the season.
Even now, with Detroit just one victory removed from another trip to the Stanley Cup final, its penalty-killing success rate is 72.2 percent. That places the Red Wings 14th among the 16 playoff teams and the two below them, Calgary and Columbus, didn't survive Round 1.
The interesting wrinkle is that much of what the Penguins have achieved with the extra man lately can be traced to the same basic strategy employed by Detroit's scary-good power play: Get the puck to the net a lot, and have someone waiting when it arrives.
For the Red Wings, that's usually Tomas Holmstrom. For the Penguins, Bill Guerin.
Their job -- and both do it very well -- is to screen the goaltender, get deflections and convert rebounds.
"They have the mind-set to put the puck at the net and have a guy in front to tip the puck," point man Kris Letang said. "They're always consistent, because they don't try hard passes through the [penalty-killing] box and fancy stuff."
The Penguins did for most of the season, which is why their results didn't reflect their skill level. They spent dozens of man-advantages trying to set up a highlights-tape goal, but rarely managed to.
"We're blessed with world-class players on the power play, and they have the ability to make great plays," assistant coach Mike Yeo said. "It's not always easy for somebody to simplify and keep things [basic], to not try to make an outstanding play, and just make a good play.
"But, to their credit, they've done it. And the fact that they've gotten a reward from it helps a lot."
There still is an almost-embarrassment amount of talent on the No. 1 unit, which has Gonchar and Letang at the points, with Crosby, Malkin and Guerin up front.
But rather than simply moving the puck harmlessly around the perimeter or trying to make low-percentage passes the way they did earlier, the Penguins now keep the puck and bodies in motion almost constantly, stretching the penalty-killing box until a shooting or passing lane opens.
"We've moving a little better, supporting each other a little better," Gonchar said.
Doing almost everything better. They've been moving the puck up the ice efficiently, entering the zone cleanly and setting up well once they're in.
"We've given ourselves a good chance with getting more [offensive-]zone time, and things like that," Crosby said. "But I think we've done a better job of executing."
Gonchar, for one, thinks they can do better.
"I believe there is some room for improvement," he said.
Which is why their power play might be the variable that determines which side of the handshake line the Penguins will be on when their season finally ends.
Dave Molinari can be reached at email@example.com . First Published May 26, 2009 4:00 AM