ROUND 1, GAME 1
By Dave Fryer, Contributor to InsidePittsburghSports.com
The two primary reasons for the Penguins’ ouster in last year’s playoffs were goaltending and penalty killing. The Pittsburgh penalty kill was an abysmal 47.8% in the six-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers, allowing a total of 12 PPG along the way. Those 2 PPG/game clearly sunk the ship of a team that otherwise racked up a brawny 4.33 goals of offense per contest.
Goaltending was a major contributor to those failures, as the tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson posted a mere .818 save percentage in the series. But despite the inherent spotlight of that position, the penalty-kill problems extended to rampant confusion, missed assignments, and unguarded opponents in the areas around the blue paint.
For a team that finished second in the NHL at an 87.8% clip when shorthanded in the regular season, the inexplicable face-plant in the playoffs left a long and bitter aftertaste in the extended offseason.
On the reverse end of the ledger, the Penguins’ power play was the Jekyll to the penalty kill’s Hyde in that series. The team notched nine power play goals of their own in the series against the Flyers, rolling along at a nearly-dominant 30%.
In fact, the only reason the power play of the Pens did not look like a dominant machine was because Philadelphia was allowed to look like an unrivaled juggernaut on their man-advantage opportunities. Plus, the Pittsburgh power play yielded three shorthanded goals to their cross-state rivals, just another of the head-scratching oddities of that ill-fated series.
Based on that, the 2013 playoffs for the Penguins are going to be even more disappointing if the penalty kill does not improve over last year or if the power play does not flourish like it did 11 months ago. But with solid efforts on both special teams units, the Penguins are going to be extremely difficult to beat in any best-of-7 series and become even stronger favorites to bring the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh.
So for each game of the 2013 post-season, InsidePittsburghSports.com is going to analyze the performance of the Penguins’ special teams units, personnel, opportunities, and situations. This starts here with an in-depth look at how Pittsburgh fared against the New York Islanders in Game 1 of their opening-round series.
Power Play Goals = 2
Power Play Opportunities = 4
Power Play Percentage = 50%
Power Play Shots = 8
5-on-3 Situations = 1 opportunity, 0 goals, 0 shots
Shorthanded Chances = 1 shot allowed, 0 goals against
Minutes of Power Play Time = 6:03 (3:02 per PPG)
Power Play Faceoffs = 7 of 11, 64%
Primary 1st unit = Malkin, Letang, Iginla, Neal, Kunitz
Primary 2nd unit = Jokinen, Morrow, Bennett, Martin, Niskanen
Power Play Goal Scorers = Bennett, Letang
Pittsburgh was given a prime opportunity to grab the upper-hand early in the game by getting a power play just 100 seconds into the contest. They seized that chance on a gem of a goal by Beau Bennett late in the power play.
That goal was aided by two favorable bounces – a deflected shot from Jarome Iginla that stunned NYI goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, and a NYI clearing attempt that hit a linesman in the neutral zone late in the penalty, giving the puck to Paul Martin at the red line instead of sending it the length of the ice. Martin’s transition pass led directly to Bennett breaking open down the wing, and Nabokov, perhaps a bit gun shy, left the skilled rookie enough space above the short-side shoulder for Bennett to light the lamp with a power play tally.
The shot off the protective mask of Nabokov allowed several things to swing in favor of the Penguins. First, it may have shaken the Islanders’ netminder enough to throw him off his game. The goal by Bennett looked pretty, but Nabokov was not in good position on the play either, cheating low and to the inside instead of being square to the shooter. He also did not react well to a shot that once again was above his shoulders, and he was eventually chased to the bench within another 20 minutes of play.
The whistle for the injury also nullified a play by the Islanders that cleared the puck from the zone, bringing the face-off back to the right of Nabokov. New York was unable to get a solid clearing attempt after that point. And lastly, the extended stoppage to attend to Nabokov allowed Kris Letang to stay on the ice and Evgeni Malkin to sit only seven seconds of action before coming right back on the ice at the next whistle, where he would eventually pick up the primary assist on Bennett’s goal.
The Penguins’ second opportunity of the night did not officially yield a goal, but it did draw a second penalty to extend the power play when Malkin was tripped along the boards. The 5-on-3 lasted 23 seconds, and Letang scored just 3 seconds beyond that to give Pittsburgh a commanding 3-0 lead before the 2nd period was even two minutes old. The goal was again largely the result of an incredibly accurate wrist shot, but the freshly-expired two-man advantage and the threat of another Iginla one-timer gave Letang more than enough time to pick his spot.
During the earlier stoppage for the Nabokov injury, Islanders assistant coach Brent Thompson was seen on the bench motioning to his players to essentially tighten up by containing more to the middle of the ice.
Even beyond the penalty-killing situations, New York was just simply not aggressive enough in this hockey game to slow the Penguins’ attack, generate scoring chances on Fleury, or generate any momentum, in general. This passive style directly burned them a few times, and the PPG by Letang was Exhibit A.
As mentioned, the threatening one-timer by Iginla from the left-wing circle posed problems for the Islanders by creating a few good chances and opening up a few other options on the power play. Iginla fired off two one-timers on the first power play of the game, one of which was the shot off the head of Nabokov. He let off another in the first-period portion of the second power-play opportunity that carried over into the second period and rifled one again in the closing seconds of the 5-on-3. That shot barely went wide, but the Penguins quickly reset, resulting in Malkin feeding Iginla the puck again.
The Islanders were essentially still in a 5-on-3 formation, and when they were severely backed off by the feed to Iginla and threat of another one-timer, a quick touch pass high gave Letang plenty of ice and a solid 3 seconds to work with.
The front-end of the 5-on-3 counts as a power play opportunity, so statistically speaking, the Penguins failed to score on that chance. The Letang goal then put the Penguins at 2-for-3 on the man-advantage.
The final power play chance of the night came on the five-minute major with 2:10 to play. The Penguins employed a makeshift “Power Play 3” unit for the duration of that advantage, in part because James Neal was out with an injury and Iginla was out with a misconduct penalty. But primarily, Pittsburgh was looking to preserve the shutout for Fleury and put some physical bodies on the ice in case the Islanders chose to mix it up some more.
The injury to Neal occurred immediately prior to the Letang goal, as Neal’s feet looked to get inadvertently tangled with Travis Hamonic on the side boards. Neal did not return to the game, but his absence had no affect on the power play since the Penguins did not need to employ their top power play unit again for the remainder of the game.
The Penguins struggled at times on their breakouts and break-ins, as New York caused enough havoc to slow the Pittsburgh attack through the neutral zone. This weakness was partially balanced out by the Penguins winning 7 of 11 face-offs while up a man.
Nearly every player on the roster saw power play time in this game, with the lone exceptions being Pascal Dupuis and Douglas Murray. Dupuis likely would have been used in the game’s final chance since he was seeking a hat trick, but he was out of the game at that time because of a misconduct penalty received during the scrum involving the major penalty to Marty Reasoner. Murray also received a misconduct penalty during that time.
Power Play Goals Allowed = 0
Power Play Opportunities = 4
Penalty Kill Percentage = 100%
Power Play Shots Allowed = 6
5-on-3 Situations = 0 opportunities, 0 goals, 0 shots
Shorthanded Chances = 0 shots, 0 goals
Minutes of Shorthanded Time = 8:00
Shorthanded Faceoffs = 5 of 8, 63%
Pittsburgh was very effective overall against the top players for the Islanders. John Tavares was held without a single shot in the game (which included 4:44 of power-play work), and by and large, the Islanders’ attack was limited to the perimeter of the ice. The power play for New York looked much the same, generating just six shots without much of a danger behind any of them.
So while the obvious key to the Penguins’ penalty kill in this game was the Islanders’ inability to generate much offense, the hidden key, at least in the early stages, was to not give New York much power play time during critical situations either.
Through the first half of the game, Pittsburgh only took one penalty. By the time they took their 2nd penalty at 13:45 of the second period, the score was 5-0 and the life had been sapped from the Islanders. The three penalties that gave NYI the man advantage over the last 30 minutes of play is not much to be concerned with either, especially when three of their four penalties that resulted in Islander power plays were rather marginal.
New York placed Matt Moulson in front of the net on their top unit, which caused a little bit of havoc around Fleury. But unlike last year, when Philadelphia used players like Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmons to cause fits for the PK, the Penguins have an answer to this.
Similar to the years of Hal Gill (and even back to Ulf Samuelsson era) owning the house area, Douglas Murray staked claim to that real estate in Game 1. At 6’0” and 205 pounds, Moulson simply cannot win the physical battle against the bigger, stronger Murray (6’3”, 245). This task for Moulson will not get much easier once Brooks Orpik returns to the lineup.
Lubomir Visnovsky led New York with five shots in Game 1, and several of those came on the power play. However, Visnovsky is a left-handed shot, shooting from the top of the left-wing side of the zone. It is not going to be very often that Fleury gets beat directly on one of those shots, unlike the right-handed Letang firing one past Nabokov from the same area. Visnovsky also has never scored a goal in 19 post-season games in his career, so the Islanders are going to need to look elsewhere if they expect to make an impact on the power play.
The Islanders came into the game scoreless in their last 12 power play chances. That drought has extended to 16 opportunities. Posting only six shots – none of which were rebound chances – in eight full minutes of power play time will not likely reverse that trend any time soon. The Pittsburgh forwards did a good job at collapsing down to the low slot when the puck was in the area or a defenseman (or two) was forced out of that area, a scenario that worked against them in the 2012 playoffs.
Unlike the Islanders, the Penguins remained fairly aggressive on their penalty kill. Loose pucks in the zone nearly always had a player in a black jersey hounding it, and other than a few instances of Isles players setting up high along the boards, the Pens pressured the puck all over the zone.
The PK forecheck also had an aggressive approach, with one defenseman often pushing up to the middle of the ice create a three-across look to the oncoming attack. A power-play quarterback like Mark Streit and a gifted playmaker like Tavares could do some damage with even just a little bit of time and space, but neither player was afforded those opportunities when New York possessed the man advantage.
And lastly, the Penguin penalty killers were very effective in getting their sticks in passing lanes and getting sticks on loose pucks. Nearly every legitimate chance the Penguins had to clear the zone was successful. And Pittsburgh won 5 of 8 face-offs while down a man. All of that speaks to a team that controlled the play and dictated the direction of the puck while on the penalty kill.
While Marc-Andre Fleury and, to a smaller extent, Pascal Dupuis will get much of the attention in the aftermath of Game 1, the special teams were truly the difference-maker in this one. The first power play chance for the Penguins came at an opportune time, and they grabbed control of the game, the momentum, and potentially the series by capitalizing.
Kris Letang’s power play tally early in the second period sealed the fate on this one and further backed off the Islanders from aggressive play out of fear of putting the Pittsburgh power play back on the ice.
The Penguins’ penalty kill was smothering and in-sync, eliminating any chance the Islanders had to etch out a positive part to this hockey game. The Penguins were good in all facets of their game and were great when they had to be, including every special-teams situation. Because of that, Pittsburgh is one step closer to their goal of winning four games this series, and – perhaps just as importantly – one step farther from their failure to win four games in their last series.
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