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In praise of the Penguins’ penalty killing unit this season

It is the league’s best unit entering the week, marking a huge turnaround from a year ago.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Pittsburgh Penguins Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins rebounded this week with back-to-back shutouts in Montreal and Toronto, beating the two teams by a combined 8-0 margin to get back into the win column.

Saturday’s 2-0 win in Toronto was especially impressive because they held a Toronto team that had been one of the league’s hottest teams, and a team that averages close to 35 shots on goal per game, to zero goals and only 26 shots on goal in the win. All of that happened on a night where the power plays were 4-1 in favor of Toronto, with an extended two-man advantage late in the game with the Penguins clinging to their two goal lead.

They were more than ready for the challenge.

So let us take a quick look at that penalty killing unit and its play this season, because entering play on Monday it is the best unit in the league with an 89.1 percent success rate.

That is noteworthy not only because it is a great number, but also because the Penguins’ penalty killing unit was one of the league’s worst a year ago.

There is not much to suggest it is not sustainable, either. Not only do they not give up goals, they are one of the best teams in the league at suppressing shot attempts (ninth best in shoot attempts against per 60 minutes), shots on goal (third best in shots on goal allowed per 60 minutes), and still in the top-10 in expected goals against per 60 minutes, scoring chanaces against per 60 minutes, and high-danger scoring chances agaisnt per 60 minutes on the PK.

All of those numbers were better than what we saw from this unit a year ago, but not dramatically better. While the Penguins were 27th in the league in terms of PK success rate a year ago, they sat in the 10-16 range in the aforementioned shot and and scoring chance categories. So there is still an improvement across the board.

What has changed this season?

For starters, there are a lot of different players playing big minutes on the PK.

Of the Penguins’ top-11 players in PK ice-time a year ago, five of them (Cody Ceci, Mark Jankowski, Brandon Tanev, Colton Sceviour, and Frederick Gaudreau) are no longer on the team. No player played more PK time a year ago than Ceci’s 134 minutes, while he was one of only two players (Brian Dumoulin at 112 minutes) to log more than 100 PK minutes. They have been replaced so far by the likes of Brock McGinn, Brian Boyle, and Mark Friedman, while John Marino and Teddy Blueger are the top minute loggers in those situations. Some of that is through roster changes, and some of it is necessity due to injuries. Still, there are some different players taking over those minutes.

But the biggest change of all, though, and perhaps the one that has resulted in the simplest explanation for the improvement, is the fact they are simply getting much better goaltending in these situations.

The Penguins goalies so far have a .909 save percentage on the PK, which is the third-best mark in the league in those situations behind only the Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks.

A year ago they were only getting an .837 save percentage, the fourth worst mark in the league ahead of only Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Nashville.

You know the old cliche that your goalie has to be/is supposed to be your best penalty killer? Well, that is a big key for the Penguins right now. Goaltending in general — at least in regards to Tristan Jarry — has been a big key for the season so far.

When you combine strong goaltending on the PK with a unit that is one of the best in the league at suppressing shots on goal, you are going to have a lot of success in those situations. The Penguins are getting all of that, and it is not only keeping what has been a shorthanded and at times undermanned unit in games, it has been the difference and a major momentum swinger in a couple of them so far.

It also helps make up for the overall lackluster performance of the other special teams unit.

If you are going to have success in one of those two areas, the PK is the one you want to be good in because it is a hell of a lot easier to overcome a bad power play unit than it is to overcome a bad penalty killing unit because the latter is going to keep putting you in holes on the scoreboard you have to dig out of. You keep teams off of the scoreboard there, you take pressure off the team in other situations.

The injury situation has been a headache at times this season and left the Penguins with a very shorthanded roster on most nights. But they have managed to stay in it and work their way through it with a respectable record that is keeping them in the playoff race. This unit and its improvement from a year ago is a significant part of that.