Penguins' penalty-killers make their mark
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It is the Penguins' other special team.
The one that hasn't inspired countless rants on talk shows and message boards during the past two months.
The one that isn't cited as a major factor almost any time the Penguins lose a game.
The one that is ranked in the top third of the league, not in the bottom three.
It is their penalty-killing, which has had more impact than acclaim through the first 31 games of this season.
"It's one that will go unnoticed, just because everyone wants to talk about the skill and the power play and [the talent] up front, and that's fine," said left winger Matt Cooke, a fixture on the penalty-killing unit.
"Special teams can win and lose games for you, and it doesn't always have to be the power play. The penalty-killing can do it."
The Penguins (20-10-1) haven't won many games on the strength of their play with the man-advantage -- they have scored on just 14 percent of their power plays and are ranked ahead of only Carolina (13.7) and St. Louis (12.8) before last night's games -- but they lost even fewer because of their work when short-handed.
The Penguins have killed 83.5 percent of the power plays they have faced, good for ninth place in the NHL. They have allowed more than one extra-man goal four times this season, but it has only happened once since the first four games.
Having such effective penalty-killing gives the Penguins a reasonable chance to, at least, break even in the special-teams battle almost every game, and that can be a critical variable in determining the outcome.
"Power plays are a big part of the game, and if you shut the opponent's down, that's where games are sometimes won," said penalty-killer Pascal Dupuis.
Assistant coach Tony Granato, who assumed Tom Fitzgerald's spot on the staff during the offseason, is overseeing the penalty-killing. He refrained from making any dramatic changes to the way it operates because "it did very well in the playoffs, and they had a lot of success."
The Penguins placed fifth in the NHL during the playoffs, with a kill rate of 83.3 percent, after ranking eighth during the regular season with an 82.7.
Granato, it should be noted, contends that having all of the penalty-killers be on the same page is more important than the details of the strategies laid out on that page.
"It's not so much what you're doing," he said. "It's that everybody knows what each other is doing. That's the most important thing for any part of the team, but certainly the penalty-killing unit.
"If one guy's pressuring, the other three have to be in a position to support that pressure. The continuity among the guys of knowing and understanding what their responsibilities are was put in place well before the start of this season."
Still, not quite everything is exactly as it was this spring. Cooke noted that Granato has added a few new forechecks, and Dupuis said there is an emphasis on real-time reactions to opponents' tactics and personnel.
"As soon as [Granato] sees their breakouts, we adjust right away on the bench," Dupuis said. "The next time, there's going to be a different forecheck or [penalty-killing] box or 1-1-2 [alignment], or whatever."
While strategies and player combinations can be tweaked, a few traits are shared by almost every good penalty-killing team. Shot-blocking is critical, players must know when and where their teammates will be and sound goaltending is imperative.
"A lot of your penalty-killing unit is having confidence in your goalie, and your goalie's ability to make the big save when you need it," Granato said. "We have two goalies we know are going to make saves when we need it."
Another factor that might be easy to overlook but whose value is almost impossible to overstate is having penalty-killers who are committed to the job, and the Penguins have a surplus of those.
"I've been around a long time, and this unit has a special appreciation for understanding their role," Granato said.
"They're solid five-on-five players, but their special-teams [commitment] makes sure that when the game is on the line and they have to block a shot, you know that a guy like Craig Adams is going to do it."
First Published December 9, 2009 12:00 am