Power play triggers more confidence for Penguins

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s not that Mark Letestu lacks confidence in Columbus’ ability to kill penalties.

He doesn’t. And he shouldn’t.

The Blue Jackets have been short-handed 17 times in their first-round playoff series against the Penguins and have given up three goals.

Penguins Report: Joe Vitale talks about series

Pittsburgh Penguins center Joe Vitale talks to the media from the Nationwide Arena in Columbus. (Video by Peter Diana; 4/22/2014)

That’s a success rate of 82.4 percent, which is nothing special, but it doesn’t reflect that the Penguins have scored just one more goal when they have the man-advantage than they’ve allowed.

Letestu, a former Penguin, leads the Blue Jackets in short-handed ice time in the series, averaging four minutes and 32 seconds per game.

He also believes that if he and his teammates continue to play down a man that often they will be putting themselves in a precarious spot.

“It’s close to 20 opportunities that we’ve given them through three games,” Letestu said Tuesday. “That’s too many. We have to try to limit our time in the penalty box, try to keep this game 5-on-5.”

Columbus has not given up a goal in its past 12 short-handed situations and will try to extend that streak in Game 4 tonight at Nationwide Arena.

After some problems early in the series, the Blue Jackets have done a good job of containing a power play that was the NHL’s most efficient in the regular season.

They have, for the most part, kept the Penguins on the perimeter of the offensive zone and limited the number of shots goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has had to face when a teammate is in the penalty box.

The Penguins, though, began to get their power play in sync Monday in the 4-3 Game 3 victory. They entered the attacking zone more cleanly than they had been, set up well once they got in and were able to get pucks and bodies toward Bobrovsky.

“Our power play looked a lot better, in terms of getting pucks to the net,” center Brandon Sutter said.

Just as important, they didn’t allow the Blue Jackets to generate any offense while short-handed. That became a priority after Columbus picked up a short-handed goal in each of the first two games.

“We knew coming in that they were going to be looking to score short-handed goals, and we were on the wrong side of that in the first two games,” said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the power play. “The biggest improvement for me was that there were no short-handed chances against [Monday].”

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and his staff have used a number of personnel combinations on the top power-play unit in the first three games, but they come in two basic configurations: One has two defensemen on the points, the other a defenseman and center Evgeni Malkin there.

Deploying a forward on the point generally makes a team more dangerous offensively, but also more vulnerable to giving up a short-handed goal. Malkin was on the ice both times Columbus scored while a man short in Games 1 and 2.

He was used primarily, though not exclusively, up front in Game 3.

“With giving up a couple of short-handed goals, having two [defensemen] back there probably allows you, as a forward, not to have to worry about playing [defense] as much,” center Sidney Crosby said. “Just focus on creating plays and shooting the puck and not having to necessarily worry about having to be back on the blue line sometimes.”

Letestu, though, said the personnel combination Bylsma sends out doesn’t have a major impact on the approach the Columbus penalty-killers take.

“By no means am I looking back at the point and seeing a forward back there, and maybe that’s going to make me more aggressive,” he said. “We have the same aggressive mindset, no matter which five are out there.”

Perhaps, but the Penguins might be able to get Columbus to back off a bit if the power play can continue to run as smoothly as it did for much of Game 3.

“We seemed more organized,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We created momentum instead of giving it up.”

Two key members of the power play, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, returned recently from extended absences and, in Reirden’s words, “neither of them is in midseason form at this point.”

Getting them there will take time. Having the power play mesh like it did Monday, when the Penguins cut down on low-percentage passes and made a point of throwing pucks at Bobrovsky, should help to buy them some.

“We did have more of a shooter’s mentality,” Niskanen said. “If we continue that, our skill will take over.”

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

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