Gene Collier: Penguins power play returns to form



Given the generally unrelenting excellence of the Penguins this winter, certain statistical inevitabilities are just part of their handsome profile.

No one is exactly perplexed, therefore, that Dan Bylsma's team has the NHL's most destructive power play or its most secure penalty-kill, or perhaps even that the relevant figures are so overwhelming.

Gliding onto the Uptown pond Wednesday night for an appointment with the Montreal Canadiens, the Penguins were humming at 24.2 percent on the power play (39 for 161) and at 87.9 percent for the killers, against whom opponents had scored only 18 times on 149 power plays.

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When you're running a hockey team for which those two percentages added together hit 100, let alone 112.1, things are almost unavoidably going very well.

But when the machine hit a pothole here the other night, someone decided to maybe check the gauges, just in case.

So it turns out the power play had been successful only once in the previous 15 advantages, only once in the past five games, and that on the occasion of a 5-1 loss against Florida here to start the week, Florida's worst-in-the-NHL-world power play mirrored the Penguins' 0 for 3 and made eyewitnesses unable to tell which wretched unit was which.

Then, with Montreal's P.K. Subban in the box halfway through the first period, the ultra-talented unit of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, James Neal and Chris Kunitz couldn't get themselves situated in the Canadiens' end, let alone manage an actual shot, and it wasn't until Matt Niskanen and Brandon Sutter came over the boards that the Penguins applied any pressure.

"Everyone's penalty-kill is so good nowadays," Niskanen said minutes after the Penguins attack returned to dominance in a 5-1 victory. "They're forcing you into what they want to do and forcing you into a corner where you don't have any help. They pressure you, so you have to have a little bit of plan to support the puck."

Within seconds, the power play was 1 for its past 16, and had begun to resemble a ... um, sort of a kind of an approximation of a... (gasp!) problem.

But this Penguins teams laughs off problems, right?

As the Pittsburghers like to say, "No prawm at all."

I noticed Bylsma wasn't laughing. "Our power play was a little bit indicative of our 5-on-5 play," sniffed the head coach after his club went to 24.8 percent on the power play. "Our focus then, not only for the power play but for 5-on-5 was 'do your job.' We were assimilating some guys back into our lineup and getting away from a few things that make us successful, so that was our focus tonight.

"The first [power-play] goal in particular was an indication of doing your job, doing the right thing. Niskanen getting a shot to the net front for Taylor's goal. We were much, much better for 5-on-5 and for the power play as well."

Niskanen blasted a shot that Taylor Pyatt deflected past Carey Price for the power-play goal that made it 2-0 Penguins, and Crosby redirected a Letang missile into the Canadiens net to make it 4-1 late in the second, so that 1-for-16 figure was suddenly 2 for 3 with the man-advantage.

"We always try to do that, when the goalie tries to challenge you, to put a guy behind him," Letang said of the brilliant Crosby goal. "It's a tough play to make for forward; it's a hard shot to clip."

Augmenting all that, of course, was a general return to offensive excellence that sucked every last drop of potential drama from what has been a squeaky close relationship between these teams on the ice. Six of previous eight meetings were one-goal affairs, the other two being decided by two goals. Four of the previous 11 games had required more than the standard 60 minutes to settle.

So 50 games into a season as promising as any in their history, the Penguins are back on the accelerator, making precise adjustments every bit as easily as it appears they do everything else.

"We talked about some things about the power play," Niskanen said, "and one focus tonight was that maybe we should have a little bit more of a shooter's mentality. When the power play's not going well, that's the best way to get out of it -- have a couple bodies around the net, find an open shot, crash the rebounds. If things are going well, you don't have to talk about the power play."

It appears we can go back to not talking about it.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published January 23, 2014 12:48 AM

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