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While the Pens’ power play has struggled, the penalty kill has dominated

That is a very encouraging sign, the Pittsburgh PK has been among the league’s best

NHL: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We have spent the past month — literally, the past month — watching the Pittsburgh Penguins power play fail to get out of its own way and not only not score any goals, but not even really come close to scoring. The power play drought finally ended on Tuesday night with a Jared McCann goal late in the second period to tie the game against the New York Rangers, helping the Penguins at least secure a point in the standings.

Also helping the Penguins secure a point in the standings: The penalty kill unit for two huge kills in the third period, including one very late, to keep the game tied and get it to overtime. It extended the team’s current penalty kill streak to 16 in a row, and has them near the top of the league.

As of Thursday the Penguins have the second best PK unit in the league with an 88.1 percent success rate, while having also scored three shorthanded goals (tied for third in the league). But it’s not just the fact they are not giving up goals that is important, they are not giving up anything.

Here are the Penguins per 60 minute numbers (and NHL ranks) on the PK, via Natural Stat Trick.

Shot attempts against: 78.1 (second)
Shots on goal against: 43.6 (third)
Scoring chances against: 36.1 (second)
High-danger scoring chances against: 11.74 (first)
Expected goals against: 5.08 (second)
Goals against: 5.03 (sixth)

That is not just a good penalty killing unit, or one that is on a hot streak because of great goaltending. That is a completely dominant unit that is playing at a sustainable level. The best sign of future performance on the penalty kill is not necessarily how many goals a team does or does not give up, it’s the number of shots and chances that they give up. Those are what turn into future goals, and right now there is almost no team in the league that has done a better job this season at preventing those than the Penguins.

They also do a great job protecting the front of the net.

Obviously the defensemen deserve a lot of credit for that (including the oft-criticized Jack Johnson, who has been strong on the PK, to his credit) but the most interesting thing about this performance is the forwards that are being given the biggest roles and playing the most minutes.

The Penguins’ shorthanded ice-time leaders this season among forwards are Brandon Tanev, Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese, and Sam Lafferty.

A free agent acquisition, and three young players.

I have already started to come around on Tanev and hop on that bandwagon because he has been everything the most optimistic projections said he would be, and he has been a tremendous asset for that PK unit. But it’s the young guys that are the most encouraging. Between them they are not only giving the Penguins what has quickly become an excellent fourth line (even if Mike Sullivan refuses to call it the fourth line, we all know it is) but they are also one of the backbones of the league’s best penalty killing unit. If you are getting that sort of depth and play from young players on entry-level deals, you are doing pretty well for yourself at the bottom of your lineup.

This is also encouraging because the performance of the PK is more important than the performance of the power play. Obviously you want the power play to be better — and eventually you have to think it will be — but it is possible to win, and win a championship, without a dominant power play unit. It is a lot more difficult to win with bad penalty kill because you can not be putting yourself in a hole by giving up extra goals. If you look back at past Stanley Cup teams they tend to rate way higher on the PK than they do on the power play. If you have to be good at one and only one, this is the one to be good at.