Something special fuels Penguins

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DENVER -- Using a formula coach Dan Bylsma prefers, the Penguins rank first in the NHL in combined special teams.

They were second in penalty-killing at 88.7 percent and fifth on the power play at 20.4 percent before the Friday games. That combined "score" of seven represents a better overall ranking than Vancouver's eight (fifth in penalty-killing, third on the power play).

By any configuration, special teams have been a one-two punch that has helped carry the Penguins to contention for a high playoff seed, but it's an area that could be challenged with strong power-play point man Kris Letang out at least for the game tonight against the Colorado Avalanche because of a suspected concussion.

"[Letang] is really good at that position," said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who will inherit that spot.

Scouting report
  • Matchup: Penguins vs. Colorado Avalanche, 9:08 p.m. today, Pepsi Center, Denver.
  • TV, radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
  • Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Avalanche.
  • Penguins: Have won four games in row. ... Have won only meeting vs. Colorado each of past two seasons after going 2-14-3 against Avalanche dating to 1995-96. ... Are 6-1 in past seven shootouts, 8-3 overall.
  • Avalanche: Had scored at least four goals in each game of a four-game winning streak before 2-0 loss Thursday vs. Columbus. ... Has been shut out seven times. ... D Erik Johnson is plus-12 over past 32 games.
  • Hidden stat: Penguins RW James Neal is two points from 200 for his career, C Evgeni Malkin is three points from 500.

The Penguins also could be without their power-play quarterback and second point man, winger Steve Sullivan, who is questionable because of an undisclosed injury. They were without Letang for 21 games earlier because of a concussion and have been without skilled center and power-play mainstay Sidney Crosby most of the season.

Yet the power play, which ranked 23rd in 2010-11 (15.8 percent), has become almost as dangerous as their penalty killing, which led the league last season (86.1 percent).

Bruce Boudreau, while he coached Washington, got a good feel for what makes the Penguins tick. He is now with Anaheim, and, when the Ducks rolled through Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, he was asked what makes the Penguins good this season.

Before he mentioned NHL leading scorer and MVP candidate Evgeni Malkin or Marc-Andre Fleury's goaltending or Bylsma's coaching, Boudreau singled out special teams.

"They're the best combined power play/penalty kill in the league," he said. "It's the big proponent that they have this year that they didn't have last year. They were the best penalty-killing team last year, but their power play, as much talent as they had, wasn't clicking. Now their power play is clicking."

When the Penguins outscore their opponent in special-teams play, they are 23-3-3. When the special teams are even, they are 12-9-2. And, when the other team wins the special-teams battle, they are 2-9.

Colorado has been middle-of-the-pack on special teams, ranking 12th on the power play (18.5 percent) and 19th in penalty-killing (81.6 percent). Perhaps the Penguins will be able to take advantage of that.

"Every game when you win the special-teams battle, there's a pretty good chance that you're going to find a way to win the game," said center Jordan Staal, a top Penguins penalty-killer and member of the No. 2 power-play unit.

For the remainder of the stretch drive and in the playoffs, things tighten up defensively at even strength.

"You know it's going to be a game with not a lot of room, so, if you can take care of the [penalty killing] and power play, it's going to be huge," said winger Pascal Dupuis, another of the Penguins top penalty-killers.

Opponents' power plays are 2 for 43 (4.9 percent) against the Penguins over the past 13 games. In fact, with four shorthanded goals, the Penguins' penalty-killers have outscored the other teams' power play during that stretch.

"When you have a good [penalty kill], you've got their best players out there playing on the power play, and, when you frustrate them and keep them off the scoreboard, that affects the players throughout the rest of the game," said Staal, who leads the team with three shorthanded goals.

The Penguins nine shorthanded goals ranked them second behind New Jersey before the Friday games.

Forward Richard Park, another Penguins penalty-killer, said this team is not as aggressive as New Jersey in pushing for shorthanded goals, but are benefiting from a strong mindset.

"If you're down a man or two and [opponents see] you have the confidence and the ability to go out and not allow a goal, and then, when you're up a man or two to have that confidence and ability to go out and score, I'm sure that's something that other teams really focus on when coming to play us," he said.

Niskanen feels ready to pick up the slack in Letang's absence, distributing the puck on the power play and launching shots from the point.

"That stretch when he was out [before], I got an opportunity to play there," Niskanen said. "I've been in that position on just about every team I've been on at some point. It's something I'm comfortable with, and I think it's part of my game that I have to try to excel at to be a good player."


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