Players come and go, but Penguins' penalty-kill stays strong



A couple of seasons ago, the Penguins had the third-best penalty-killing in the NHL.

No fewer than 87.8 percent of opponents' power plays yielded nothing but frustration and disappointment for the club with the extra man.

Of course, that was back when Jordan Staal was a fixture on the Penguins' short-handed unit. Matt Cooke, too. But Staal was traded to Carolina in the summer of 2012, and Cooke left for Minnesota via free agency in July. Clearly, much is different now.

But not everything. In fact, a few things have remained remarkably unchanged.

Scouting report
 
Matchup: Penguins at Ottawa Senators, 7:38 p.m. today, Canadian Tire Centre.

TV, Radio: Root, WXDX-FM (105.9).

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Craig Anderson for Senators.

Penguins: Have won at least one game in Ottawa in six of past seven seasons. … RW Pascal Dupuis has four-game points streak. … Rank third in league with 42 third-period goals.

Senators: Are giving up 3.18 goals per game, third-highest figure in NHL. … D Erik Karlsson has been guilty of league-high 56 giveaways. … Have won 52.7 percent of their faceoffs to rank fourth in NHL.

Hidden stat: Senators are one of three NHL teams to have losing record at home (7-10-4) but be .500 or better on road (7-7-3).

The Penguins' penalty-killing success rate, for example.

They enter their game against Ottawa tonight at the Canadian Tire Centre having snuffed precisely 87.8 percent of other team's chances with the extra man -- the same figure they put up in 2011-12. The only difference is that the Penguins are second, not third, in the league rankings.

Never mind that Staal and Cooke have moved on. Or that penalty-killing stalwarts such as Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and Tanner Glass, among others, have missed significant time because of injuries.

"We've been doing a great job," said center Brandon Sutter, who was acquired in the Staal trade and inherited his place on the penalty-killing unit.

The Penguins have given up just two man-advantage goals in 34 short-handed situations over the past 10 games. Not coincidentally, they've won nine of those.

When a team is missing as many front-line players as the Penguins are, the importance of special-teams play is magnified. Power-play and penalty-killing efficiency can be decisive under normal circumstances; put a team in circumstances that leave virtually no margin for error and they become even more critical.

The Penguins 12-1 record in their past 13 games testifies to how effective they have been when up or down a man.

"The power play has been outstanding," said assistant coach Tony Granato, who oversees the penalty-kill. "The numbers [14 for 40 in the past 13 games] speak for themselves."

So do the ones the Penguins have put up while short-handed.

"They go over the boards with a mission to make sure that it doesn't get in our net," Granato said.

And that's nearly always how it works out, at least in recent weeks. Even with so many guys who log big minutes killing penalties unavailable, the Penguins approach every opposing power play as if they have no doubt they'll be able to neutralize it.

"Whenever you're on a good roll, you feel like that, and that's how you should feel," right winger Craig Adams said. "That doesn't mean you're going to kill every one, but you expect to."

Granato traced the Penguins' current penalty-killing prowess to concepts introduced by Dan Bylsma when he replaced Michel Therrien as coach in February 2009.

Those became the template for playing short-handed at all levels of the organization, which is why players brought up from the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre -- guys such as Zach Sill and Brian Dumoulin -- can make a seamless transition when called upon to kill penalties with the parent club.

"Dan started implementing the way we kill five years ago, and we've followed through with it," Granato said.

"The advantage of sticking with the same strategies, the same philosophies is that throughout your organization, everybody knows what's expected of them in that situation and how they're expected to play."

Imperative as a sound tactical foundation is, intangibles are no less significant.

A willingness to sweat and the courage to sacrifice one's body to block a slap shot can go a long way toward offsetting a manpower disadvantage.

"The big thing is just taking a lot of pride in it," Sill said. "The whole organization takes pride in the penalty kill and the power play. The guys that are on it take pride in it, they want to stay on it and they want to do well at it."

Thirty-eight games into the season, the Penguins are. Better than many anticipated. And every bit as well as they did two seasons ago.

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG


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