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Practice update: Pens fine tune late game strategy

Other teams pulling their goalie has been trouble for the Pens this season, so they work on it in practice

NHL: NOV 06 Wild at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Usually when the Penguins are up in a game late, they win. As historian Bob Grove pointed out, in the Mike Sullivan era Pittsburgh is now 103-1-4 at home when leading after two periods. That fourth OT loss came on Saturday night, when the Wild pulled their goalie and scored two goals in the last 3:19 of the game to send it to overtime. Minnesota would go on to win in a shootout.

Give up two 5v6 goals in a game, and surprise surprise, the team made that a point to practice on Monday before heading out to Chicago for the next game tomorrow.

All of that is right, and Reirden — who is basically acting head coach for this time period where Sullivan is in COVID protocol — sure sounds like a head coach.

It’s not all Reirden’s fault, Saturday night were the third and fourth goals the Pens have allowed in just 10 games when the other team has pulled their goalie. Those four goals lead the league in that category, per Natural Stat Trick. Pittsburgh has only been in 5v6 situations for 6:41 so far this season, and giving up four goals is not conducive to winning games.

By comparison, last season the Pens only surrendered five goals against across all 56 games when the other team didn’t have a goalie, in 39 minutes of play.

As Reirden notes, his team has played too passive in these situations. They’ve lost key faceoffs and haven’t pressured or covered points very much, allowing opponents to control the puck. It also should be remembered in these closing minutes the opposition is desperately trying to push to score late in the games, and Pittsburgh needs to match that energy and drive.

Another factor is personnel too. Last year, Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust all scored four ENG’s a piece and had the most 5v6 time among forwards on the team. Pittsburgh could trust its top line to play in this situation. All of those players, while being responsible defensively, are also offensive players that can score as well. This season Crosby has missed nine of the ten games and Rust has missed more than he’s played and the team has had to rely on lesser players like Brian Boyle, Danton Heinen and Teddy Blueger in this role more than they would like. Useful players, but not exactly Crosby.

After practice Mike Matheson shared some insight on the matter:

Defensively, closing games down without the benefit of Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson right now is also a key point of weakness for the Pens. Matheson would know about learning, he was on the ice for the goal Ryan Hartman scored with just three seconds left to send the game to overtime.

Getting to a 5v6 situation means a team has played well enough to take a lead into the game’s final minutes, but still has to weather one more charge from the opponents. The problem for the Pens is that coaching strategies are evolving to the point where forward-thinking and aggressive coaches will lift their goalie for an extra attacker with 4-5+ minutes left in the game in some cases. That can lead to trouble, as Pittsburgh has found out this year.

With extra attention in practice and hopefully eventual roster upgrades, that could work itself out for the Pens in future situations. The hard part usually is getting the lead to force the other team to pull the goalie, after all.