Grove: Penguins Penalty Kill Has Plenty Of Potential This Season

Pens are a perfect 5 for 5 and have allowed only 4 total shots in first 2 games

Bob Grove
October 10, 2018 - 10:02 am

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Related: Pens Preview: Defense Needs To Improve For Penguins To Capture 3rd Cup In 4 Years

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - In Mike Sullivan's first season behind their bench, the Penguins' penalty killers were doubly efficient while helping the team to the Cup. They finished fifth in the league at 84.4 percent (84.5 percent after Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston) and were second in short-handed goals with 11 (nine under Sullivan) – also producing the winner in a tone-setting Game 1 against the Rangers.

Sullivan's penalty killers have been less of a factor since, finishing tied for 19th in 2016-17 (79.8 percent) and 17th last season (80.0), scoring a total of 11 short-handed goals over the two seasons. But as they prepare to host Vegas and visit Montreal later this week, the ingredients are there for a different kind of penalty kill this time around.

It's only two games in, but the Pittsburgh penalty killers are the lone group with which Sullivan can have no complaints; they're a perfect five-for-five and have allowed only four total shots while winning seven of 11 draws, including seven of nine in the defensive zone. They've displayed some of the urgency that's been largely missing from the Penguins' game – witness Evgeni Malkin doing well to track down Joel Armia on the backcheck Saturday only to back off the gas at the blue line while Armia proceeded to the net for a short-handed goal.

The PK groups came up big with kills late in the first and early in the second period of the Washington game, with the Penguins down by a goal each time against a dangerous power play that torched them last spring. They also kept the Canadiens off the board early in the first period of a scoreless game Saturday before things went downhill, and a continuation of this trend will certainly help with Matt Murray out due to a concussion.

Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Riley Sheahan and Carl Hagelin are playing their usual roles, Letang and Hagelin using their skating ability to make a difference and Sheahan winning more than his share of faceoffs. But a full season with Matt Cullen, Bryan Rust, Jack Johnson and perhaps even Derick Brassard promises to inject more speed and smarts into the equation.

The departure of Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney might mean fewer blocked shots by Pittsburgh penalty killers, a particularly noteworthy part of Kuhnhackl's game. But Cullen is certainly capable of matching Rowney's good numbers in the faceoff circle, and he and Rust, whose development as an NHL penalty killer was interrupted when he missed almost a month in mid-season last winter, give the Penguins more skating ability, skill and vision with the puck.

This should serve the Penguins well by not only making zone entries more difficult when the opportunity is there for up-ice pressure but also for converting more turnovers into scoring chances. Of course wary of the time and score in any situation, Pittsburgh might benefit from being a bit more aggressive with the puck while killing penalties – which was their strategy in 2015-16.

Brassard, currently averaging 1:09 per game on the PK, has never killed penalties in the NHL. In fact, among the 26 NHL forwards who have played 670+ games since Brassard became an NHL regular in 2009-10, only three have never scored a short-handed goal: Alexander Ovechkin, Jake Voracek and Brassard. He's an interesting addition to the forward depth on the PK, and these minutes can help keep him in the game by replacing the power play minutes he no longer gets on a first unit.

Johnson should absolutely make an impact here and looks to be usurping Jamie Oleksiak's minutes on the PK. Over the previous five seasons, Johnson ranked eighth among all NHL defenseman in total PK minutes played (1,024), so he has the experience and proficiency for the job. It's also a place for him to be more physical, which is a part of his game he needs to bring here in Pittsburgh.

Over the course of the season, there will be injuries, slumps and other changes, like the potential for Maatta to leave the lineup for Thursday's game against Vegas. Maatta had actually been used more as a penalty killer in the two opening games this season than he was last season, and perhaps Juuso Riikola will get looks on the second unit.

It's always a work in progress, and always highly dependent on the performance of goaltenders, but the Penguins need to be, and have the potential to be, different and better while killing penalties this season.

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