During the holiday season, how could anyone look little Virginia in the eye and say, “Yes, there is a Santa Claus” when all we really, really, really wanted for Christmas was a power play, and he didn’t deliver? I don’t know about anyone else, but I wanted it just as badly as that bespectacled little boy in A Christmas Story craved, yearned, longed for that Red Rider BB gun.
I have had my share of frustration watching the Penguins’ power play over the past few seasons, but it finally reached the precipice of the point of no return on my sanity during the Sunday 5PM game against the Florida Panthers, when the Pens drew a juicy 4-minute penalty from Cory Stillman that would tick out the finish of the game. The Pens were down 4-2 at that point, but no worries, dude! We’ve seen it before with barely 2-minutes left when they work their collective magic to force an OT and increase their chances of a win or at least a coveted point for the effort.
I was hopeful. I was energized. Tons of time. Scads of time. If they got one in the first 2 minutes, there would still be the other 2 minutes to contend with and tie-up the game…at the very least. Am I right? Am I right?!! Like Charlie Brown, I believed that Lucy would not pull that blasted ball away at the last second and send me on my head for the umpteenth painful and humiliating time.
Lucy, you are a cold, cruel child.
Pop culture references aside, on the eve of the Calgary Flames game on Wednesday night, I no longer found it funny anymore. The Pittsburgh Penguins are a Stanley Cup-winning team with not only 2 “elite” players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but a coveted 3-line deep and not too shabby 4th line team of solid players as well as two strong goaltenders. Yet they sat a befuddling 29th out of 30 (above only the Ottawa Senators) on the power play.
Here are some notable stats revealing that position prior to their road trip to western Canada:
- In 47 games, the Pens earned 196 power play opportunities, tied with the Dallas Stars who to that point played one less game than the Pens.
- In those 196 opportunities, they scored only 28 goals (14.3%).
- At home, they earned 98 opportunities over 23 games they hosted, scoring 18 goals (18.4%).
- On the road, they earned the other 98 opportunities over 24 games, scoring 10 goals (10.2%).
Maddening, isn’t it? With Crosby and Malkin in the points race, with Bill Guerin and Jordan Staal putting in improved and consistent offensive performances, these things beg the question of how? How is this possible?
It begins with a simple truth: in order to score, one must shoot.
Translation: The only chance of getting a puck in the goal is to send it in the direction of the goal.
That’s for starters, at the most basic level. The purpose of the power play is to score more easily because the team on the power play has the extra man. That’s the consequence of taking a penalty. Break a rule, commit an infraction, and the offender goes into the “sin bin” to serve his punishment, quaking in his skates, praying to the hockey gods that his transgression does not cost his team a goal.
As with fighting in hockey, power plays (at least successful ones) are designed as a deterrent, to control the nonsense because to commit a crime in the face of a team with an effective power play means there is certainty of a high price to pay. There are consequences.
Conversely, an ineffective power play is no different than the parent who keeps threatening a consequence but never delivers. The result is an unruly child. There is no longer fear of committing penalties, of taking runs at guys, of chancing dirty and dangerous play because the chances are the offending team will be no worse off at the end of it. No one is shaking in his skates.
Teams awarded a power play are supposed to relish it, jump on it, put on their own form of additional punishment by taking it to the four poor slobs who drew first-watch guard duty in front of their stalwart netminder. These four guys are supposed to be run into the ice, rendered dead on their feet by the relentless barrage of shots as they bravely stand up under the seige. Moreso, this should be felt when staring across the ice at the likes of Malkin, Crosby, and Gonchar.
In short, the power play is not meant to be synonymous with a Saturday afternoon cotillion, and yet, the way the Pens have executed their power play for the better part of the last two seasons–a power play that four septagenarians on double-blades with walkers could defend, it seemed they were hell bent to fall on their own sword.
So, let’s look at the set-up.
The lead power play unit generally consists of Crosby, Malkin, and Gonchar as staples. Either Alex Goligoski or Kris Letang works opposite Gonchar, and Guerin generally serves as the third forward. But of late, the power play has comprised replacing Goligoski/Letang with Malkin on the left point, bringing Chris Kunitz (when healthy) or Matt Cooke up front. Gonchar runs the point, as he should. Crosby sets up on the right halfwall/circle opposite Malkin. Guerin trolls the front of the net with Cooke. The effect is an “umbrella” across the top near the blue line where Crosby, Gonchar, and Malkin connect the dots with passes.
It might work if the passes are quicker because again, the idea of shifting a puck laterally at speed forces the penalty-killers to have to shift back and forth, not unlike a squeeze play in baseball where a runner is trapped between bases, and the two field players toss quickly back and forth as the guy in the middle tries to find a way to either advance or get back to base. The effect of speed passing in alternately opposite directions on a power play is that after a while, the defenders get tired and no longer sync up with the passers, creating an opening for a shot. But if the passes are lackadaisical, PKers can follow it in sync all day long…and have.
The second problem is utilizing the slap shot too much. A slap shot requires a wind up. A wind up takes time and gives time to the defender to get in the shooting lane to block the shot. Snap shots require less wind up, but can deliver a pretty forceful shot, and there’s nothing wrong with a wrist-shot.
The third problem is with entering the zone. It’s a tricky thing because the forwards still have to time it with the puck-carrier so that they enter the zone with speed but do not commit an off-sides infraction. Still, the set-up and carry through neutral ice is entirely too slow. This was most starkly seen in the recent Penguins-Flyers game, and as painful as it is for me to admit that Philadelphia does anything better than Pittsburgh, they are the No. 1 power play in the league, and that bears some respect and some careful notetaking. Their set up and entry is fast, hard, and efficient on the stick of all people: the dreaded Scott Hartnell. If they lose the puck out of the attacking zone, they go get it, and they do so with controlled urgency.
So what’s this team to do? Let me revisit two arguments I’ve made since last season:
- Get Sid down on the goal line and off the right half wall! A guy with his speed and his hands in tight spaces is the perfect person to madden goalies and literally take out the trash on nearly every shot on net. Miles of footage exist where he has managed some amazing stick work in close, showing his almost superhuman hand-eye coordination. He’s an explosive player who can get the biscuit in the basket in the middle of a scrum before a goalie can bat one eye. Putting Sid on the right circle wastes his talent. It also causes him to fall into this semi-quarterback role where he will slow that puck down to a crawl and look everything over, thinking pass ahead of shot. That’s not his forte’. Additionally, while Malkin has improved as Gonchar’s other half on the point, he is not comfortable on the left side and cannot set-up for that killer one-timer that he can bury from the right side.
- The Penguins have most arguably the toughest, shut-down 3rd line that manages a bucketload of points, especially this season. They run a sustained cycle in the offensive zone better than anybody while peppering the opposing goalie. This would serve a power play well in two ways. First, they still manage to get off several shots, which is sorely needed on the power play, AND, probably even more importantly, when they shoot, they still manage to be first on the puck to keep it in the offensive zone, rarely letting a puck take off past the Pens’ blueliners for a break the other way. Short-handed goals against the power play this year have become embarrassing. Utilizing the 3rd line this way would curtail that.
Of course, this second suggestion begs the question of what to do with Crosby and Malkin. Have them follow as the second unit. It’s not a demotion; it’s a brutally effective strategy, sending them in for the mercy-killing. If the Staal line manages to wear down a PK unit, a quick change bringing the Crosby-Malkin-Guerin line on has an excellent chance of resulting in a goal. Even strength, last season, the Staal line was followed by Crosby with Malkin and did result in goals against tired legs.
Do these suggestions bear out? YES! Guess what?
- In the game against the Calgary Flames, the Malkin-Crosby-Guerin line was out with Gonchar and Goligoski on the blue line. Both Guerin and Crosby were buzzing the goal line, driving Flames goalie Miika Kiprosoff to distraction. Gonchar took his characteristic slap shot and Guerin guided it in as both he and Crosby stood in front of the net. Perfect.
- In the game against the Edmonton Oilers, it was the second power play unit that got the job done, and that unit was 2/3 of the Staal line, comprising Staal and Cooke (who got the goal off Staal’s helper) and Ruslan Fedotenko (instead of Tyler Kennedy), supported by Kris Letang and Mark Eaton. They ran the cycle and broke down penalty killers and the goalie.
- In the recent game against the Islanders, the Pens scored their first 5-on-3 goal of the season with Malkin firing a one-timer from the right circle as Staal screened the goalie. In the same game, Bill Guerin scored a man-advantage goal with a new, but effective wrinkle: Crosby set up in the “box” area between the circles. He drew people to him when he got the puck, faked a close shot on his forehand, which froze the goalie, and flipped a quick backhand pass to Guerin, resulting in Guerin’s backhand goal in the open net behind Dwayne Roloson.
The good news seems to be that the Pens are coming around to these kinds of configurations, utilizing the strengths and talents of their players. What is worrisome is that it seems they are loathe to stick with it for very long. In one of their recent games, the Pens were ending a second period in the power play that would extend into the first 40 seconds or so of the third period. The first 1:20 at the end of the second period was strong with the Malkin-Crosby-Guerin scenario as the latter two ran the goal line and Gonch and Malkin alternated teeing up shots from their comfort zones. It was refreshing. Then the third period started, revealing Crosby on the right circle up high and Malkin on the left side. GEEZ OH MAN, BOYS, WHY?! And it went right back to that lazy, hazy, summer-breeze day.
The Penguins coaching staff needs to settle on the new formats and stick to them until they don’t work anymore. They have worked, and without a working power play, this team will be hard pressed to get far in the play offs, and that’s not acceptable for a team with the kind of individual talent and collective chemistry that this great bunch of hockey players has. They do seem to be working on it and getting comfortable with a few different looks, and as of their last win in which they scored on a power play, the Pens are 22-2 when they score at least one power play goal. All of this gives the fans something to smile hopefully about.