Thursday, February 19, 2015

After historic start, Penguins need to reboot special teams

Believe it or not, there was a point this season when many thought the Penguins’ power play was set to be one of the best in franchise history. Heck, through the first 13 games, it looked like they could be one of the best in league history.
That talk wasn’t unfounded after they rolled up a 10-2-1 record and did so in large part by decimating opponents with the extra man, scoring on 21 of 56 opportunities through Nov. 8.
Things have gone in the opposite direction since.
Dating to Nov. 11, the Penguins have produced just 15 power play goals on 121 chances, a conversion rate of just 12 percent.
"It’s just consistency, that’s what it boils down to,” Sidney Crosby said recently. “With our overall game, with our power play. You can't be good one shift and take a couple off. Consistency is a big part of our game that we need to find.”
The power play futility got worse in December. The Penguins scored on just 6 percent of their chances (3 of 47) in the month. February is shaping up to be even worse, as they have not scored a single power-play goal during the month.
“When it looks good early on, everyone asks why it’s going so well,” forward Chris Kunitz said. “Then you hit a rough stretch. It’s the old basics. Shoot the puck and have guys around the net converging in, looking for those second and third chances.”
They haven’t done enough shooting as of late. It doesn’t seem to matter which personnel the team has on the ice, they just pass and pass and pass some more -- and in the process they pass up quality scoring chance after quality scoring chance.
The penalty kill was also a big part of the team’s success in the early going.
After surrendering six power-play goals over the first three games of the season, the unit reeled off 37 straight penalty kills.
They might be killing off 83 percent of opponents' opportunities since that perfect stretch, but they have faltered lately, killing off just 72 percent of chances in February.
“You want to respond when a guy gets slashed like that, but to a certain point we’ve got to keep our emotions in check,” Crosby said Tuesday night after his team retaliated against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, and ended up allowing two-power play goals. “When we get the penalties we’ve got to find a way to kill them off.”
The Penguins’ coaching staff has been looking for ways to get both ends of their special teams going.
They have recently resorted to separating Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the power play. Each player has been working with his own unit, which has resulted in a few more scoring chances, but no more goals since they went that direction Sunday during a 2-1 loss to the Blackhawks.
“I really liked the look of it,” Johnston said. “It gives us two dynamic units, a little bit of competition there.”
Those units weren’t able to break through on against the Capitals, and it cost them a chance to tie the game late in regulation.
Ironically, Johnston put Crosby and Malkin back on the ice together and they fell back into that trap of passing around the zone looking for the perfect shot. Crosby passed up at least four chances from the right faceoff circle to shoot the puck.
This group is going to have to find a way to start succeeding when their special teams units are on the ice, particularly their power play. They have struggled to score goals and capitalizing on their chances with the extra man is going to be a necessity.
“We just overcomplicated,” Johnson said. “We just made way too many plays. The first thing is to bring it to the net as soon as you can. Maybe three passes at the most and bring it to the net.
“You can’t often make a play on a penalty killing unit until you get a shot and get the rebound.”
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