Grove: Special Teams Troubles One Of Many For Penguins

The Pens find themselves on the playoff bubble in March

Bob Grove
March 01, 2019 - 12:33 pm

© Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - The Penguins are facing a number of challenges over the last 19 games of the regular season, foremost among them the growing intensity of an Eastern Conference playoff race that wasn’t supposed to find them on the bubble in March. A close second would be the injuries sustained by four defensemen, including three in the top two pairings, and forward Bryan Rust, whose production, speed and versatility have come together to benefit the team like never before over the course of this season.

But as Mike Sullivan’s team negotiates the stretch run, which resumes Friday in Buffalo, make no mistake they are also facing a special teams challenge that has contributed to losing seven of their last 12 games. They’re having significant trouble generating power play chances and power play production from several key players, and the penalty killing prowess that was playing such a critical role in their defensive efforts has gone missing.

These issues would certainly be helped by Pittsburgh getting healthy, but they’ve got to be addressed no matter who’s in the lineup. And they’re beyond the scope of the “special teams are always streaky” conversation.

Let’s start with the power play, which still ranks sixth in the NHL at 24.3 percent. That’s a good number, but the Penguins’ proficiency has been stymied lately by a lack of chances. They’ve earned two or fewer power play chances 10 times in the last 13 games, and they have failed to produce a single power play shot in four of their last nine games. One of those came last Saturday in Philadelphia, where they didn’t get a shot because they didn’t have any power plays.

The Penguins are on pace to have 220 power play chances this season, which would be the lowest total in team history over a full season. Part of the challenge now is the reality that when the calendar turns to March, power plays are harder to come by; in three straight seasons and five of the last eight, the number of chances Pittsburgh has averaged per game in March has been significantly lower than what it earned in November. As the playoff races rage on, whistles get put away.

Of course, the Penguins have continued to surrender short-handed goals – a league-high 13 this season. That has factored into changes Sullivan has made to his top unit, including dropping Phil Kessel. But their zone entries have not been consistently effective, and the absence of Kessel hurts the first unit there.

Kessel, meanwhile, has one power play goal in the last 26 games and none in his last 16. But he’s not alone: Patric Hornqvist has one power play goal in his last 27 games and none in his last 21; Kris Letang had one power play goal in 43 games before suffering a neck injury last week; and Jake Guentzel, who sometimes finds first unit time, has none in his last 18 games.

Pittsburgh’s penalty killing, meanwhile, has dropped from third in the NHL to 16th in the last six weeks. Over the last 17 games, the Penguins have killed only 67.3% of their penalties. Recent injuries have piled onto this existing problem, as Pittsburgh finished its game in Columbus Tuesday missing four of its regular penalty killers in Letang, Rust, Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin – and also defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, who was slotting into the PK rotation because of injuries to the other defensemen.

The Penguins have not been giving opponents too many chances – they’re on pace to allow the third-lowest number in team history in a full season. But they’ve been taking a lot of offensive zone penalties lately, which has to annoy coaches, and over the last eight games they’re allowing far too many shots per chance to opponents. Pittsburgh’s goaltending inconsistency has also been a contributing factor.

Erik Gudbranson should be able to help on the PK, where he was logging 2:11 per game with a Vancouver team that is allowing among the most power play chances in the league. Jack Johnson, Matt Cullen and Zach Aston-Reese will continue to play key roles here, and Jared McCann and Sidney Crosby may see more time. But it’s on the back end where the Penguins sorely need to get healthy, because Justin Schultz, Marcus Pettersson and Juuso Riikola don’t kill penalties.

Down the stretch, the details of the Penguins’ game will be critical. That might apply more to their special teams than any other area.

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