Penguins penalty-killers spot encouraging signs


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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- There was much for the Penguins to celebrate after a 4-2 victory Thursday night in Winnipeg.

* A Metropolitan Division championship.

* Defenseman Paul Martin's wildly successful return to the lineup after an 18-game absence.

* A defensive effort that limited the Jets to 15 shots, just two more than the franchise record for a road game.

But there was something else that, while easily overlooked, had to be encouraging for the Penguins: They didn't allow the Jets to score on three tries with the extra man.

Now, that might not seem like much of a feat -- Winnipeg's power play ranks in the bottom-quarter of the league, and had just a few opportunities -- but, considering how the Penguins' penalty-killing has struggled in recent weeks, it was noteworthy.

Scouting report
 
Matchup: Penguins vs. Minnesota Wild, 8:08 p.m. today, Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn.

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

Probabal goaltenders: Jeff Zatkoff for Penguins; Ilya Bryzgalov for Wild.

Penguins: Have all-time record of 2-3-1 in St. Paul. ... LW Chris Kunitz leads the NHL with 15 first-period goals. ... Have 22 road victories, two shy of franchise record set in 1992-93 and matched in 2010-11.
Wild: Is 23-9-5 at home, but 1-2-3 in past six there. ... Former Penguins LW Matt Cooke has 10 goals and 16 assists in 77 games. ... Have NHL's fourth-worst penalty-killing, with success rate of 79.2 percent.

Hidden stat: Minnesota has dressed seven goalies for this season.

And if the Penguins can turn in that kind of short-handed work again when they face Minnesota at 8:08 p.m. today at Xcel Energy Center, it might indicate that their penalty-killing is moving back toward the level it reached so frequently in the first three-quarters of this season.

It was the best in the league for much of the season until it began to struggle a dozen games ago.

In the 11 games before a victory in Winnipeg, the Penguins allowed nine goals in 34 short-handed situations, a kill rate of just 73.5 percent. Only three times in that span did they prevent opponents from scoring with the man-advantage.

Not coincidentally, they were two games below .500 [4-6-1] in those 11 games. Before that stretch, the Penguins had killed 87.1 percent of the penalties they received and were 27 games above .500 [44-17-4].

A lot of factors, from goaltending to the willingness of players to block shots to clearing rebounds efficiently, influence the quality of a penalty-kill, and a breakdown in just one area can undermine an otherwise effective performance.

For the Penguins, the primary problem of late has been a frequent inability to get the puck deep into the opponents' zone, and, sometimes, even to get it out of their end.

"There have been a couple of times when we've had chances to clear pucks and haven't gotten them down," center Brandon Sutter said. "It seems like every time that's happened, it's ended up in the back of our net.

"We just have to bear down a little bit more, in terms of getting the puck all the way down the ice and just worry about killing [the penalty] off, not about making plays."

Launching pucks the length of the ice while short-handed isn't always easy. The defending team is, of course, outnumbered and the player attempting to clear the puck often gets possession of it in a less-than-ideal spot, such as in a corner with an attacking player nearly on top of him.

Still, there have been times when the penalty-killers have passed on making what they call a "hard" play -- shooting the puck with as much force as possible, with the sole intent of getting it out of the defensive zone -- and tried to finesse the puck to a teammate, possibly to generate a scoring opportunity.

"We're just trying to be a little too cute," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "That's not something that usually happens on a [penalty-kill], but I know for myself and for a lot of guys recently, instead of trying to just make a hard play, which you usually have to make on a penalty-kill, we've been trying to do maybe a soft area play for somebody else.

"Sometimes, if you can get good wood on it, the best play is to just hammer it."

The Penguins' penalty-killing success rate has slipped to 85.3 percent, good for fourth in the league before Friday night games.

But because special-teams play is notoriously cyclical -- and because the Penguins have established over an extended period that they can do quality work while down a man -- they seem confident their penalty-killing issues will be resolved before the playoffs begin in about two weeks.

"We have to get back to it, but we obviously have very good penalty-killing players who know how to kill penalties," said assistant coach Tony Granato, who oversees the penalty-killing.

"We have guys who are willing to block shots and we have good goaltending. It's just important to get a little more rhythm than we've had the last couple of weeks."

The Penguins seem certain the six-game, season-ending stretch that began in Winnipeg will provide plenty of opportunities for the penalty-killers to do that.

"There will be lots of penalty-kills yet," Sutter said. "We don't want to have too many of them, but we do want to get better at it and get back to where we were earlier in the year."

*

NOTE -- The Penguins recalled forward Andrew Ebbett from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. He has one assist in seven NHL games this season.

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


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