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Power play personnel, alignment needs adjustment for the Pens

One of the biggest takeaways of the Pens/Flyers exhibition game was the frustration of the Pittsburgh power play

Pittsburgh Penguins v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

The Penguins/Flyers game yesterday was a tune up, and one area where Pittsburgh definitely needs to go back to the drawing board is how their 0 for 3 power play performed.

“My impression of the power play is we need to be whole lot better,” coach Mike Sullivan said in a video conference after the game. “We have a ways to go to get it firing on all cylinders. And I think we all have to just go back to work tomorrow in practice and make sure we get better at it. I think it will improve. I know these guys are proud guys. They want it to be successful. For me, the solutions are lying in simplifying the game. I don’t think we moved the puck as quickly as we needed it to. And I don’t think we were shooting the puck when we had opportunities to put the puck on the net. We’ll go back to work with it, and we’ll get it moving in the right direction.”

Sullivan is right on all accounts, and it starts in “simplifying the game” on his end too. The Pens chose to use Justin Schultz (he of just 1 power play goal since the start of the 2017-18 season in 138 games) instead of Kris Letang (who has 22 PPG in the same time frame, and a 1.08 PPG/60 to Schultz’s 0.18 to use rates to even out the playing time).

Perhaps worse than that personnel choice of using Schultz over Letang was the strategic decision to anchor Sidney Crosby to the left-wall in the few times the power play actually got setup with puck possession in the zone. Crosby as a left shot on that side didn’t fit, while Letang and Bryan Rust (who led the team with eight power play goals this season) sitting on the bench.

With Rust’s emergence and Jake Guentzel’s return to health, Sullivan has a variety of options to choose from, perhaps too many even. Pittsburgh’s power play has struggled in general to find its footing in 2019-20, due to injuries and without Phil Kessel (who helped boost the Pens to a #1 league power play in his stint from 2015-19).

In fact, yesterday’s game was the first time since November 9th, and only the seventh time all season (h/t Bob Grove) that Crosby + Malkin + Guentzel have shared a sheet of ice while playing a different team. Crosby missed more time over the last week, so the power play probably was never going to look smooth right now no matter what.

The Pens’ dilemma remains about the same as it has been for 15 years: both Crosby and Malkin are left-handed and best used in the same spot on the right side. Nice problem to have in many regards, but it’s been a juggling act for the whole period. Simplification means putting the best pieces in the best places possible, which would probably mean:

Posted Net-front: Patric Hornqvist

Down low on the right: Crosby

Slot/rover: Guentzel

Right-ish point: Malkin

Center point/left lane cut: Letang

Sullivan was also preaching motion and having a fluid power play in Phase 3 practices, and the above would emphasize that. If Guentzel cuts in low, Crosby would read and react to that (very reasonable). If Letang jumped in, Malkin would have to rotate back to the blueline (a more dangerous proposition). The power play, which had run from the left-side mainly between Kessel and Letang, should flip as a mirror and become mostly Letang and Malkin setting up plays and pulling defenders out of lanes to wait for Crosby/Guentzel to create.

Other than Hornqvist, who should be anchored at the top of the crease making the goalie’s vision and comfortability low, the key to the Pens’ success, regardless of the exact personnel, is creating dynamic plays. When too many non-Hornqvist players aren’t moving their feet and being stationary, NHL penalty killers are going to break up passes and shots with general ease like the Flyers did yesterday.

It’s very difficult for a team like the Penguins to win games and, in a larger picture, playoff series without a high functioning power play. Given the talent on the ice and the offensive-minded nature of the team, it’s a necessary piece of the puzzle that has to be contributing goals.

After a very rocky showing in the sole exhibition game, Sullivan and the Pens have their work cut out for them in a few short days to make some changes and instill some confidence in a very important group for the team’s chances of success.