Justin K. Aller
Instead of playing to their offensive strengths, the Pens consistently find themselves in penalty trouble and they're paying the price.
Composure? Discipline? Nonsense! say the Pittsburgh Penguins as they continue to walk themselves to the L column with every penalty they take.
The Pens have committed 89 minor penalties, fourth most in the NHL. As a team that capitalizes on high-energy play, it's easy to see why the Pens can't find the wins when they spend large chunks of games chasing the puck in their zone. It's stifling which boils over in the form of interference or a stick in the ribs. Rinse and repeat as dictated by the Pens ever-changing emotions of the game.
"I don't know how many times you can address it. We know how they like to play. We know they like to target certain guys on our team. Zac Rinaldo goes off with (Kris Letang). I think that's a pretty good trade-off for them. I don't know if you can address it anymore. Talking about it doesn't do you any good if you go out and do the opposite."
We can scream obscenities at the TV all night with every penalty the Pens take, but we won't be telling them anything they don't already know. This has been their biggest cross all season.
Philadelphia has had a game plan to get in the faces of players who struggle with containing their emotions, and it's worked in their favor. They engineered the perfect blueprint to defeat the Penguins: force them to play defense by getting them angry and beating them on the penalty kill. The Pens have gotten away with it in the past because of their strong penalty kill, but since the Philadelphia playoff series last spring, that's no longer a reliable fallback (I will get to the current penalty kill later).
As a recent Cup-winning team, the Pens don't have any excuses; their maturity, regardless of age, should be present in every game and it isn't.
So who's to blame? Below are the five perpetrators with the most minor penalties (I've excluded Simon Despres simply because he's still adjusting to the NHL):
All forwards. Funny enough, each player who skated against Florida took a penalty and three of them took penalties against the Flyers.
Other than Matt Cooke, the players on that list are on the first two lines. Those are two lines that need to be circulating on the ice regularly, not cooling off in the box. When I look back at Orpik's quote, what team wouldn't want to see Evgeni Malkin and James Neal off the ice for extended periods of time? Any team that can pull them off the ice for two minutes "wins" the trade-off every time.
Now take a look at the top five players who average the most ice time. You would think that players who play more have more opportunities to take penalties. Not the case; these guys are among the least penalized on the team. Aside from Sidney Crosby, they're also all defensemen.
How about Matt Niskanen with no penalties on the season?
So what we have is a high influx of forwards taking penalties and the defense has to bail the team out way too many times. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if the penalty kill was working at an effective rate, which it is not. The penalty kill has allowed 17 goals in 20 games. 12 of those goals were scored in the Pens' seven losses. Last season, the Pens had a grand total of 33 power play goals against. Distant is the memory of the once dominating penalty kill, and having penalty killers like Pascal Dupuis and Cooke in the box doesn't help the matter.
This has to stop.
There's no doubt the penalty kill has to be better, but the best penalty kill is the one that doesn't have to take the ice. Dan Bylsma must demand a more concerted team effort to remain disciplined so the star players can do what they do best. Maybe he should use his timeout when he notices the tempers starting to flare, instead of in the final 20 seconds of a game, down two goals. Or maybe players must pay him $500 cash for every minor penalty. The Pens need an incentive to stay out of the box because losing doesn't seem to do the trick.
A strategy dominated by penalties speaks of a team content with playing to not lose rather than playing to win. With the offensive juggernauts on the team, this can't be the way to go.
The Pens are better than that.