Penguins' top-ranked penalty kill looks ordinary

Lightning power play strong going into tonight's Game 4


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TAMPA, Fla. -- Tony Granato can find flaws when he studies tape of the Penguins' penalty-killers.

Quite a few of them, actually.

Clearing attempts that failed. Passing lanes that weren't cut off. Tampa Bay forwards who weren't blocked out.

What Granato, the Penguins' assistant coach who oversees penalty-killing, can't turn up, though, is a reason to fret seriously about how the unit is performing in the playoffs, even though it was the lowest-rated one in the NHL before Tuesday.

"They finished where they did in the regular season [first overall] for a reason," he said.

Tampa Bay has scored on 4 of 11 power plays heading into Game 4 at 7:08 tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum. That translates to a kill rate of just 63.6 percent for the Penguins, and means they might be anchored at the bottom of the rankings for a while.


Today

Game: Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:08 p.m. today, St. Pete Times Forum.

TV, radio, Internet: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9), www.penguins.nhl.com.

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Dwayne Roloson for Lightning.

Penguins: Have record of 21-24 in Game 4s, including 13-13 on road. ... Zbynek Michalek has 11 shots on goal in series, tying Tyler Kennedy for team lead. ... One of two Eastern Conference teams -- Boston is the other -- without power-play goal in playoffs.

Lightning: Lost two or more consecutive home games three times in final two months of regular season. ... C Nate Thompson, D Mattias Ohlund, both plus-1, are only players with positive plus-minus rating. ... Has scored four of its seven goals in first period.

Of note: Teams have combined for 210 hits -- an average of 70 per game -- through first three games.


If so, the penalty-killers will be keeping company with the power play, which is 0 for 15 in the series. So much for the conventional wisdom that special-teams play is the difference-maker in a tight series.

It still could be, of course. The Penguins have a 2-1 lead in the series, and it is not out of the question that they could advance to Round 2 on the strength of dominant five-on-five play.

Sure would be a lot easier, though, if they could prevent the Lightning from consistently manufacturing a couple of power-play goals, the way Tampa Bay did in Games 2 and 3.

"You never going into the game thinking, 'Well, we'll give them two,' " Penguins penalty-killer Max Talbot said.

Fact is, the Penguins rarely let that happen during the regular season. Even the Lightning, which has an outstanding power play, scored just twice against them in 21 tries with the extra man before the playoffs.

That might be part of the reason Tampa Bay made a tactical adjustment, reworking its power play to put an emphasis on getting pucks to the front of the net to create scoring opportunities.

So far, that approach has paid off in a big way, as three of Tampa Bay's man-advantage goals have come off of rebounds and/or scrambles in front of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

"They've been very good at not being real fancy and getting a lot of pucks to the front of the net area," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

"They get the tip-, rebound- and loose-puck goal. We need to be better in and around that net."

Sometimes, though, the sequence that produces a goal begins 60 or so feet away from the net.

Like in Game 2, when Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer made a sensational play to knock a clearing attempt out of the air at the Penguins' blue line and keep alive a play that led to Vincent Lecavalier stuffing a shot past Fleury a few seconds later.

Or in Game 3, when Penguins defenseman Kris Letang managed to get the puck across the blue line, but not by much. The Lightning quickly regrouped to keep the play alive, then watched Martin St. Louis backhand in a rebound 10 seconds before the Penguins were to return to even strength.

The Lightning has some highly skilled personnel, and is capable of dissecting almost any penalty-killing unit with quick, precise puck movement. Its coaches, though, seem to conclude that a more blue-collar approach was called for in this series, and they have had no reason to second-guess that strategy.

"They've gotten a little bit away from their traditional set-up and formations and they've gone more to just throwing it at the net and crashing and hoping for rebounds," Granato said. "They've had success with it, so you'd expect them to stick with that, and you'd also expect them to go back to what their foundation has been all year."

No matter how the Lightning opts to approach its opportunities with the extra man, the Penguins seem confident they can come up with an antidote.

"I don't think we're down on ourselves," Talbot said. "It's something that we know we can improve, that we know we can do better, but it's been one of our strengths all year.

"Special teams are going to be huge in the playoffs, huge in this series. And we need to get better."

Precedent, in the form of their 86.1 percent kill rate in the regular season, suggests they can.

"Our guys have been good all year," Granato said. "They know what they're supposed to do, they put their bodies on the line to block shots, and we've gotten big saves from our goalies all year.

"And we'll be the same way [tonight]."


Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published April 20, 2011 4:00 AM


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