Grove: 8 Things To Watch For In The Penguins' Second Half

Bob Grove
January 04, 2019 - 10:32 am

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - The Penguins hit the halfway mark of the 2018-19 season at home against Winnipeg Friday night, a night that could end with them sitting atop the Metropolitan Division standings. That was not a plausible scenario just six weeks ago.

Coach Mike Sullivan’s special teams have played a special part in Pittsburgh’s 15-4-2 renaissance, which includes a seven-game winning streak that is currently the NHL’s longest. The Penguins’ power play and penalty killing units have taken their two-minute slices of play during this stretch and consistently shaped the course of games.

During this 21-game run, the equivalent of more than a quarter of a season, they’ve converted 30.1 percent of their power play opportunities and killed 87.7% of their penalties. During this winning streak, the numbers are 47.3 percent and 94.1 percent, respectively.

In their 22 victories this season, the Penguins’ special teams have had an outsized effect on their bottom line: the power play has functioned at 32.7 percent and their penalty kill at 91.0 percent. They’re the only team in the league whose special teams are both ranked in the top five, something only three Pittsburgh teams have ever accomplished over the course of an entire season.

Related: Grove: Crosby Biggest Reason The Penguins Turnaround

Can the Penguins really keep this up?

There is, after all, truth in the notion that special teams performances, even for the league’s best teams, will ebb and flow over the course of 82 games. For example, the Pittsburgh power play is due to cool off, coming into the Winnipeg game with eight goals in its last 10 chances, a stretch which included a run of five consecutive conversions.

Here are eight things to watch over the second half:

The health of Patric Hornqvist. He’s had several concussions since coming to Pittsburgh, including one this season, and the Penguins’ power play is not nearly the same without him (13.6% this season) as it is with him (30.3%). He’s a magnet for defensive attention in front of the net, creating space for his teammates, and his ability to provide screens and redirections, or to bang in rebounds, makes him an unnerving presence for opposing goaltenders.

The continued rotation of Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel on the penalty kill. Last season, Sullivan basically relied on four forwards to do the hard work here, and his recent use of these two spreads those tough minutes over six forwards and reduces the wear and tear on the whole group. Crosby’s inclusion is most significant, as it puts the team’s best faceoff man on the ice more often for critical draws and provides opposing power plays a threat for short-handed opportunities.

The effectiveness of Kris Letang. Letang’s play at the point only seems to gain recognition when he’s putting up numbers with the man-advantage, as he’s done this season: he’s sixth among NHL defensemen in power play points (16) and has one in each of the past four games. But his effectiveness at reading his teammates’ movements on the power play and quickness in getting from one point to the other are underrated. He’s been better this season at providing one-time opportunities for Evgeni Malkin, he’s been more patient with the puck and he’s getting 55.8% of his attempted shots at all strengths on the net – by far the best mark for Pittsburgh defensemen and a number that has been helped by his ability to do this on the power play.

The play of Jack Johnson. Johnson has done his best work this season on the penalty kill, where he leads all Penguins’ defensemen in average ice time (2:32). This has allowed Sullivan to back off the minutes there for Letang, who is playing almost one full shift less per game on the PK. Johnson’s 3.0 hits per game are sixth-best among NHL defensemen with 25 or more games played, and Pittsburgh has needed more of that since the departure of Ian Cole.

The Penguins’ ability to rediscover a more consistent forecheck that inevitably leads to more power plays. They’ve had just 111 power play chances this season, fourth fewest in the league. Playing and pressuring more often in the offensive zone is the best recipe for creating more opportunities, and it’s not something Pittsburgh has done with enough regularity this season.

The flip side of that, of course, would be staying out of the penalty box, and here is another aspect of the Penguins’ game that isn’t getting enough attention this season. They’ve been shorthanded only 112 times, third-fewest in the league, and their discipline has been outstanding. Maintaining that, especially under the forechecking pressure opponents have and will put on them, can be critical. 

Fewer short-handed goals allowed. You knew that was coming. Eight in 40 games is a ridiculous number.

The goaltending of Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith will continue to be a huge factor in the success of the Penguins’ penalty kill. They’re not being overworked there, as opponents are averaging about 1.5 shots per power play chance over the last six weeks – about the league average. The rest of the penalty killers need to ensure that workload continues.

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