Pens PK vs Isles PP: For Pens, Another Matchup Nightmare Hell

Bruce Bennett

As these things so often tend to do, the Penguins-Islanders Quarterfinals series will come down to who wins the special teams game. Pittsburgh's PK had better improve on recent postseasons if they want to get out of the first round.

Remember that Flyers series?

Remember that overwhelming sensation of inevitability that grabbed you by the pit of your stomach every time a Penguins skater made an unconscionably stupid play? Watching Ilya Bryzgalov temporarily escape his own playoff demons with a quick skate to his bench, bringing on the extra Flyers attacker that seemed like five? That unshakable pall of dread that rose up out of the darkest part of hockey hell faster than the officials could lift their arm towards the heavens to signal another inescapable, inexcusable, incalculably efficient orange and black power play?

That was a year ago. It's a new postseason with a new opponent, and fans are welcome to forget that awful feeling.

The Penguins had damn well better not.

Penalty killing has been Pittsburgh's albatross for three straight postseasons, and in a stacked paper series that has everyone but the Islanders and their mothers predicting a Penguins series win, nothing has taken place in the calendar year that has passed since the Flyers debacle to suggest that the Islanders can't make a game of this thing by making hay on the man-advantage.

After finishing each of the last three years in the top-ten of the NHL in regular season PK percentage, Dan Bylsma's squad watched puck after puck after man-advantage puck find the back of their net, inevitably ending with a third-consecutive postseason series loss to a lower-ranked team.

Recent regular season PK percentages have been kind to the Penguins.

2010: 84.1 percent (9th in NHL)

2011: 86.1 percent (1st in NHL)

2012: 87.7 percent (3rd in NHL, franchise-best mark)

Postseason percentages have not.

2010: 72.1 percent (15th of 16 teams, 12 percent worse than RS)

2011: 70.4 percent (15th, 15.7 percent decline)

2012: 47.8 percent (16th, 39.9 percent decline)

All told, the Penguins have allowed 32 power play goals in their last four playoff series' combined. This season, 34 of the 119 goals (28.5 percent) allowed by the Penguins have come shorthanded, and their total penalty kill percentage ranked 25th out of 30 NHL teams.

At even-strength, only five clubs have allowed fewer goals than Pittsburgh. While on the penalty kill, only the Draft Lottery Champion Colorado Avalanche allowed more odd-man goals (28) than Pittsburgh's 24.

On their own, the Islanders can manufacture a power play goal. They've got an expert playmaker in Tavares, handsy net-front bulk with Brad Boyes, a sniper in Matt Moulson and blue-line experience in Mark Streit and Lubo Visnovsky. They finished 11th in the NHL in power play efficiency, and absolutely have the tools to get the job done against a Pens' PK that has everything to prove.

Those are the negatives. The positives? The Pens held the Islanders to 2 power play goals on 20 chances in their five meetings this season, including a clean 18-for-18 sweep in four straight wins over New York after a 4-1 loss early on.

Special teams is the game within the game, one of a countless many. In this case, head-to-head history favors the Pens' chances in a series with the Islanders.

Hoo-ray.

Throw out the stats. The PK unit has flat-out sucked for three straight postseasons, needing all of six or seven games to completely erase memories or a unit that worked so remarkably well for six months and 82 games prior. The Islanders have a strong power play in their own right, but at this point the Penguins are in competition with themselves.

The Pens are heavy favorites to knock the Islanders out of the dance, and quickly. But we've all become accustomed to an upset.

The formula is certainly there for the taking.

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