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Mike Sullivan breaks up top power play unit, sees positive results

The Penguins’ head coach finally decided to change up the PP1, and it resulted in a goal by Guentzel.

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

It took the Penguins five opportunities on the man-advantage to finally put one past goaltender Jaroslav Halak Sunday night against the Bruins. Needless to say, consistently throwing away power play chances versus hot teams like Boston, and intradivisional teams fighting for playoff berths like Columbus, won’t always end in a winning effort — with a 4-1 defeat on Saturday after allowing the Blue Jackets to score short-handed, that much is very clear.

At this point in the season, with points being as crucial as they are, this team can’t afford to blow through opportunities at the rate they’ve been lately.

The Penguins had a lot of trouble trying to create clear looks or land any meaningful shots on goal, and after seeing enough evidence to move certain star players from the unit, Sullivan finally pulled the trigger vs. Boston, breaking up the stale PP1. His decision immediately paid off, as on the subsequent man-advantage, Jake Guentzel found some open ice, and with it, the back of the net.

“We decided to break (the top power play unit) into two units because we felt as though our top unit really wasn’t getting any traction,” Sullivan said. “And it hasn’t been just this game. It’s been a handful. At some point, I think the coaches feel compelled to step in and affect some change. So, we made the decision in the middle of the game to go into two units.”

With Sullivan’s changes, the new top power play unit on the ice became a mixture of PP1 and PP2 players, with Sidney Crosby, Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, and Marcus Pettersson receiving the call and rotating in. That left PP1 regulars Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on the bench, and to be fair, though it’s an unpopular decision to sit star scorers on 5-on-4 situations, these modifications were long overdue.

Between Malkin and Kessel, Malkin was the only one who registered a shot on goal on the power play in that game against Boston, and it came from roughly 35 feet out above the left circle. But he has made his fair share of mistakes on the man-advantage this season, cancelling out any actual production, and that’s what got him the boot.

Kessel, once again, seemed absent or lost, as he often has this season. Another one of his head-scratching, cross-ice passes got picked off by Brad Marchand and almost ended up as another short-handed goal against. If Marchand would’ve buried it, the game may have ended a lot less favorably for Pittsburgh, likely similar to its tilt vs. the Blue Jackets when Kessel blew a tire and ended up responsible for a shorty by Cam Atkinson. Sullivan wasn’t pleased, and benched him straight after.

“It’s execution and attention to detail,” Sullivan said. “When we get away from that, we’re not as good.”

It’s also become next-to impossible for the Penguins to deny Guentzel a spot on the top power play. Guentzel has 34 goals on the season to lead the team. His 29 even-strength goals rank fourth in the entire league. Guentzel is absolutely one of the Pens’ best offensive weapons, and it makes too much sense for him to be out there with Crosby with more open space. After all, the one power play goal scored against Boston was the result of Crosby making a glorious pass for Guentzel, who then made a nifty move to handle the puck and lift it past Halak.

Guentzel has received a decent amount of ice time on the power play, averaging 2:03 per game this season. But unless there’s been an injury to Hornqvist or Malkin, Guentzel has been relegated away from Crosby and the top unit. It becomes a numbers crunch of too many star forwards for just one power play group, but surely by this point, the Guentzel-Crosby chemistry and production is too attractive to not utilize on the power play, as they use the duo together so much at 5-on-5.

Sullivan usually reverts back to the team’s original special teams deployments after making in-game adjustments, so it’s hard to say if the decision to give Malkin and Kessel the hook, and Guentzel the promotion, will stick. But given the large sample size of lousy power plays in this 2018-19 season, and the fact that he has been threatening to make changes all year, there’s also a good chance Sullivan continues going with the new PP1.