PITTSBURGH PENGUINS PLAYOFF ANALYSIS
ROUND 1, GAME 5
By Dave Fryer, Contributor to InsidePittsburghSports.com
The raw numbers do not quite tell the story when it came to special teams in Game 5. The Pittsburgh power play, which has been dominant for much of the series, went what seemed to be a measly 1-for-5. And the Penguins’ penalty kill was largely an afterthought on the night, taking care of both shorthanded situations placed before them. Additionally, the game was primarily determined in the second period, during which there were no special-teams situations at all. But a step deeper reveals some of the significant contributions made by the special teams in the decisive Pittsburgh victory.
First and foremost, the Penguins finally got away from taking ill-timed penalties, especially in the early portion of the game when the outcome still hung in the balance. This allowed them to “get back to their game,” as Coach Dan Bylsma called for after the Game 4 loss. Similarly, the lack of special teams in the middle frame allowed Pittsburgh to go head-to-head in 5-on-5 play against an Islanders team that just is not as deep or as talented.
The rolling of four consistent lines, especially after making adjustments to those combinations during the intermission, gave the Pens the ability to set the tempo and dictate the play. And the top unit for the Penguins was actually far more-effective than the team’s final, overall statistics showed. The primary group put the game away when given the chance and provided good pressure every time they were on the ice. Lastly and simply put, the Pittsburgh penalty kill out-right smothered the Islanders’ power play, which infused a lot of confidence to the Penguins’ defensive game.
Power Play Goals = 1
Power Play Opportunities = 5
Power Play Percentage = 20%
Power Play Shots = 7
5-on-3 Situations = 1 opportunity (0:24 minutes), 0 goals, 1 shot
Shorthanded Chances = 0 shots allowed, 0 goals against
Minutes of Power Play Time = 6:06
Power Play Faceoffs = 5 of 9, 55.6%
Primary 1st unit = Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kunitz/Neal, Iginla/Martin
Primary 2nd unit = Martin, Niskanen, Morrow, Sutter, Kennedy
Power Play Goal Scorers = Letang
The top unit for the Penguins was quite effective in Game 5, essentially converting on 1-of-3 situations they were offered. They were aggressive on the puck and routinely won battles to regain possession. They showed their ability to be dynamic by creating scoring chances on the rush, with quick strikes upon zone entry, and from improvising in appropriate situations.
The first unit presented two different looks again by having Paul Martin join the group in place of Jarome Iginla in situations where Bylsma felt the need to take on more of a defensive posture. This move could have created some debate when it was employed from the start of the second power play, which did not happen until Pittsburgh held a 3-0 lead in the third period. But there was not much time to deliberate on the matter because Kris Letang lit the lamp six seconds into the power play.
Sidney Crosby won the initial face-off back to Martin, who returned the puck to Crosby along the right-wing boards. Meanwhile, Evgeni Malkin became somewhat entangled with Travis Hamonic in the corner, which instantly created a four-on-three across the rest of the zone. Crosby recognized this and moved towards the net with the puck. This forced Brian Strait, the other Islanders defenseman on the ice, to leave the front of the net to engage Crosby.
In turn, weak-side forward Michael Grabner had to move to the net-front to fill the opening left there, especially since Chris Kunitz was in that area. Crosby read this situation brilliantly and made a clever backhand pass to Letang, who was wide open in the area vacated by Grabner. Letang let off a very quick one-timer, and Kunitz had positioned himself perfectly to screen Evgeni Nabokov. The puck was well-past Nabokov before he even saw it, and the goal was the final dagger that put Nabokov back on the bench and put the Islanders away in this game.
Lineup changes for Pittsburgh forced some adjustments to the team’s second power-play unit. That group was intended to be familiar faces Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, and Brenden Morrow with newcomers Brandon Sutter and Tyler Kennedy. The unit did not seem familiar enough with each other to really get it together on the first power play, but they did provide some early energy that carried over after the power play ended. They were not needed again as a group for the remainder of the game, but this issue is going to need some attention because it is inevitable that a strong second power play unit will be called upon to produce.
James Neal saw action with the top unit, as he and Kunitz split time on the ice. Kunitz generally stays on the ice for the first 30-45 seconds of the penalty, and Neal joins in for the rest of the time the top unit is used. This approach has yet to provide any real pros or cons for Pittsburgh, but similar to the need to have a productive second unit, the Penguins are going to need a productive Neal on the power play, as he has established himself as one of the premier power play goal scorers in the NHL over the last two regular seasons.
The final two man-advantage situations of the night came in the final two minutes of the game, including 24 seconds of five-on-three play. Bylsma wisely chose to utilize a third unit in this situation to protect the lead and protect his stars. He even made a sensible choice to pull Matt Cooke off the ice in favor of Iginla to keep Cooke out of any situation that would give the Islanders a chance to take a much-desired run at him or allow Cooke to mindlessly do something that would motivate the Islanders for Game 6. Instead, the Penguins bench – and their fans – got a joy out of watching Douglas Murray and then Simon Despres set up on front of the net during the power play.
Power Play Goals Allowed = 0
Power Play Opportunities = 2
Penalty Kill Percentage = 100%
Power Play Shots Allowed = 4
5-on-3 Situations = 0 opportunities, 0 goals, 0 shots
Shorthanded Chances = 0 shots, 0 goals
Minutes of Shorthanded Time = 4:00
Shorthanded Faceoffs = 2 of 3, 66.7%
The Pittsburgh penalty kill was very strong again – led by Craig Adams, Brooks Orpik, and Martin – in their four minutes of action. And the real key to that, of course, was that they only needed to kill off one penalty in the opening period of the game. Over the first four games of the series, New York saw 15 power-play opportunities, and whopping nine of those had come in the first 20 minutes of games. Plus, eight of those first-period opportunities had come in the last three games. That allowed the Islanders to dig their edges in early in games, while at the same time taking the Penguins “out of their game.”
That recurring theme actually did have a chance to repeat itself yet again in this one, as Neal took a retaliatory penalty after a whistle in the first period. Neal certainly expected at least an even-up situation after he was whacked pretty hard in the head by a high-stick. But the officials only escorted Neal off the ice, and the subsequent NYI power play could very well have sent this game down a completely different path.
Instead, the Penguins penalty kill rose to the occasion and finished the job with the help of solid goaltending from Tomas Vokoun. The only flaw on the penalty kill was the group allowing Kyle Okposo to rush north-south through the neutral zone and zip the defense inside the zone. His move to the net nearly yielded a goal between the legs of Vokoun, but the Pittsburgh netminder kept the puck under him to maintain the 0-0 score. That save – and really this penalty kill overall – turned out to be a pretty underrated moment in the game.
Pittsburgh was again very aggressive on their penalty-killing forecheck, including getting the first man hard after the puck and pushing up a defenseman in the neutral zone. They still were able to protect the blue line well once the Islanders got to that area, an aspect of their game that has improved incrementally throughout the series. Inside the zone, they are protecting the house very well, which has largely prevented New York from getting any rebound shots.
The final kill of the game came after what appeared to be a pretty poor call against Murray. But Pittsburgh barely batted an eye to that situation and came through with another excellent performance. A key save by Vokoun on a cross-ice one-timer by Mark Streit capped off the kill, which was a nice boost to the full defensive efforts of the team and its goaltender.
The Islanders have made very few adjustments to their power play in this series, and as a result, they stand at a paltry 2-for-16 in the series (12.5%). They have been very predictable in their approach, which would not be a bad thing if their power play was producing. Instead, their methodology is far too rigid and not finding weaknesses in the defense.
New York did offer a slightly different look on their second power play, moving John Tavares lower on the right wing instead of being a part of an umbrella across the top of the zone. But the two defensemen spread across the top – Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky – still took on the same mentality of trying to feed the puck to the net through traffic. The result of this was a mere four shots with the man advantage, far shy of the quantity the team is looking for under this style.
The special teams units were not the biggest aspect of Game 5, but they were far from being insignificant either. The top power play unit of Pittsburgh continues to flex its muscles and contribute to the versatile attack, especially in the three games won by the Penguins. The penalty kill is becoming just as strong as the power play, aided by the return of Orpik and the consistent presence of Adams. The Penguins exerted control over nearly every facet of Game 5, and that was particularly true in respect to special teams. One more strong performance by these groups in this series could very likely be the final blow to the New York Islanders.
COMPOSITE SERIES STATISTICS (through 5 games)
Power Play Goals = 7
Power Play Opportunities = 20
Power Play Percentage = 35.0%
Power Play Shots = 31
5-on-3 Situations = 3 opportunities, 1 goal, 2 shots
Shorthanded Chances Allowed = 2 shots, 1 goal against
Minutes of Power Play Time = 28:20 (4:03 per PPG)
Power Play Faceoffs = 26 of 41, 63.4%
Power Play Goals Allowed = 2
Power Play Opportunities = 17
Penalty Kill Percentage = 88.2%
Power Play Shots Allowed = 24
5-on-3 Situations = 0 opportunities, 0 goals, 0 shots
Shorthanded Chances = 2 shots, 0 goals
Minutes of Shorthanded Time = 30:39 (15:20 per PPG)
Shorthanded Faceoffs = 16 of 29, 55.2%
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