By Tim Benz
If you read Pittsburgh sports internet sites (like this one), or listen to talk shows (like mine. Cheap plug time: 105.9 the X Monday-Friday 6-10 am), then you may have heard about Penguin fans who play the “Penguin Power Play Drinking Game.”
For every failed, forced back door pass to Alex Goligoski from Crosby or Malkin, take a drink!
For every fanned shot in front of the net by Bill Guerin, take a drink!
For every failed entry into the other team’s zone, take a drink!
For every :30 second span of time without a shot attempt… finish your beer!
Well, if you watched the last two Penguin games (a 6-3 loss to Washington and a 2-1 win over Philadelphia) by those rules, you were probably checked into rehab by the time the Pens’ power play actually came up huge and got a game winning goal against the Flyers Sunday afternoon.
Pittsburgh won that game 2-1 thanks to a blast from the center point by Sergei Gonchar. His rocket shot found its way through two set of legs belonging to Flyer penalty killers. Then Matt Cooke deflected it in through Ray Emery’s five-hole too. That was the difference in a defensive, yet special teams filled game which ended the Flyers six game home winning streak.
The Penguins actually scored another power play earlier in the game on another long range bomb from Gonchar. However the other six failed power plays were every bit as maddening as the teams 0-for-4 effort against the Capitals Thursday night at Mellon Arena. Of course, prior to these two games against hated rivals, Dan Bylsma’s team managed four man-up goals against the Islanders.
So Penguin fans, I guess the good news is the power play is at least improving from “painfully ineffective” to “painfully inconsistent.”
“Special teams was obviously a factor in the game,” said Bylsma after the Washington loss; noting his club’s 0-2 effort on the penalty kill as well. The same was obviously evident following the win in Philly too. Not only did the Penguins get two on the power play, but they killed 8-of-9 man-down situations versus the Flyers.
“The penalty kill has to be better,” Brooks Orpik proclaimed before the team left for Philadelphia. And it came up large Sunday afternoon.
Actually, Pittsburgh’s PK has been decent this year at 82% as of Sunday. That mark was good enough for 14th in the NHL. But the power play is 29th in the league overall and dead last on the road. That’s something to watch Monday night when the Penguins play in New York against the Rangers. After all, the Rangers have the fifth best PK unit in hockey.
“That’s an area we have to improve on. It’s not going to improve overnight. But we are doing some good things,“ says captain Sidney Crosby.
Usually when the Pens score on the power play, it’s because players (namely Gonchar or Evgeni Malkin) shoot the puck and “good things” happen as a result. Either the initial shot goes in. Or it’s deflected in. Or there is a rebound goal.
But what’s confounding about the Penguin power play is that following games in which it does do “good things” (like shooting the puck Sunday vs. Philly or Tuesday vs. the Islanders), the unit tends to regress.
This week’s results are evidence of that. It seems as if the players become cocky when they get favorable results by scoring goals. Yet, they forget how the goals came about. Instead of shooting, they go back to over-passing.
If you feel like you’ve heard this before… you have. About a thousand times over the past 25 years. Over complicating the power play has been a Penguin tradition for a quarter century. Even last year’s Stanley Cup winning team finished 20th in power play percentage.
But the Penguins can’t expect to repeat as champions this year unless the man-up situation becomes consistently better. The first step towards attaining consistent success may be to build on the positive foundation laid out on Sunday’s game winner initially fired at long range by Gonchar.
The challenge of learning from success begins Monday night at Madison Square Garden.