Penguins' penalty killing provides big boost
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It is the Penguins' other special-teams unit. The one that hasn't inspired caustic headlines and countless one-liners.
That hasn't fueled spasms of outrage on talk shows or cruel rants on message boards.
And, most important, that hasn't repeatedly cost them points through the first six weeks of this season.
Indeed, while the Penguins' maddeningly inconsistent -- and often, downright unproductive -- power play has generated far more attention than goals, their penalty-killing unit quietly has gone about being one of the most effective in the NHL.
Going into the games Tuesday night, it was tied with Tampa Bay for fourth place in the NHL rankings, with a success rate of 87.5 percent.
Game: Vancouver Canucks at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Roberto Luongo for Canucks.
Penguins: Have lost four consecutive home games to Canucks. ... C Evgeni Malkin has taken league-high 83 shots on goal. ... Are 3-5-2 in games decided by one goal.
Canucks: Are 4-4-2 on road, and wrapping up five-game Eastern road trip. ... C Ryan Kesler has four goals in past three games. ... Are 8-1-1 when scoring first.
Of note: Canucks have outscored opponents, 25-13, in third period.
If the Penguins maintain that pace, this will go down as the finest season of short-handed work in franchise history. The current mark of 86.4 percent was set in 1997-98.
While the penalty-killers are coming off their least-taxing game of the season -- the New York Rangers didn't have a power play in their 3-2 overtime victory Monday night at Consol Energy Center -- they figure to experience some serious stress and strain this evening, when Vancouver visits at 7:08.
The Canucks own the league's top-rated road power play, having scored on 13 of 39 chances in 10 away games. Indeed, the Canucks have scored more man-advantage goals on the road than the Penguins have in the entire season (12).
"I think they know what they're trying to do," Penguins penalty-killer Craig Adams said. "And they're pretty efficient at it."
The work of twin brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin has a lot to do with that. Daniel is among the league leaders with 11 power-play points -- six of them goals, placing him second to Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay in that category -- and Henrik, the defending NHL scoring champion, is right behind with 10.
Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato, who oversees the penalty-killing, regularly saw the damage the brothers can do while coaching in San Jose and Colorado.
"I was in that conference long enough to know how difficult they are to defend," Granato said. "They know each other so well.
"They have a lot of different options that they use. They don't have a specific setup, where it's obvious what they're trying to do.
"They're unpredictable. They're great passers, they're great goal-scorers and they're smart. They're flat-out great players."
The Penguins' penalty-killing unit has thrived despite being without a pretty good player of its own.
Center Jordan Staal, who logged a team-high three minutes and 20 seconds of short-handed work per game in 2009-10, hasn't skated a shift this season because of a foot infection and broken hand.
Unlikely as it seems, a group that ranked ninth in the league with a kill rate of 84.1 percent last season actually has put up better numbers without him.
"He's a very good penalty-killer and, obviously, we can't wait to have him back," Adams said. "But we have other guys who are good penalty-killers, too."
Max Talbot has succeeded Staal as the Penguins' most-used penalty-killer, averaging a little more than three minutes per game, and has teamed with Adams, Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis to handle the bulk of the short-handed work with Staal gone.
"He's obviously amazing at penalty-killing, but the five or six guys who are killing, we're confident in the [group] we have now," Talbot said. "Obviously, when he comes back, it's going to be a huge boost."
Even without Staal, the Penguins haven't allowed more than one man-advantage goal in their first 19 games and have gotten through 31 of 33 short-handed situations during the past eight games unscathed.
That has something to do with the continuity of playing under Granato's tutelage for the second year in a row and of having a group of forwards who handled that job last season. It also testifies to the penalty-killers' commitment to their work, and their willingness to put their bodies in front of shots.
"We're battling hard, and the system is pretty good," Talbot said. "It's become automatic, and you have that swagger that you're going to kill it."
First Published November 17, 2010 12:00 am