If the Pittsburgh Penguins miss the playoffs during the 2020-21 season you will be able to point the finger in a lot of different directions. But the first place you go might be the two special teams units that are starting to become a major liability. A season-crushing liability.
This team has its flaws and issues to be sure. Evgeni Malkin is still, well, who the hell knows what is going on there. They are not a particularly great 5-on-5 team. The goaltending is still a question mark. But right now the single biggest issue facing this hockey team is the fact that its power play and penalty are both among the league’s worst.
Being a great even-strength team is important, and probably the most important aspect of being a contending team.
But you still need something from your power play and penalty kill. Or at least one of them. History suggests it is possible to win when maybe one of those areas is bad. You can especially overcome a bad power play if your penalty kill and 5-on-5 play are great.
But when both of those units are bad? That is when you start to develop problems.
How bad is it for the Penguins right now?
Well, after this weekend’s split in New York the Penguins’ power play is converting on just 15 percent of its power plays. That is 26th in the NHL.
The penalty kill has successfully killed off just 72.1 percent of its penalties, a mark that is 29th in the NHL ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils. Not the kind of company you want to be keeping in any league-wide ranking.
How many times this season have you seen the Penguins get a couple of power plays in a game, completely waste them, and then give up a goal on the first penalty they take?
Or get a power play with a chance to extend a lead or tie a game only to struggle to generate a quality chance or give up chances the other way?
Or take a late penalty and almost instantly give up a goal to shift the game?
These are game-changing moments and it is not only at times taking wins away from the Penguins, it is also at contributing to their inability to win games in regulation and giving teams in the division that they are competing with for playoff spots points in the standings.
Of the two areas, the penalty kill might be the easiest to fix. The personnel, in theory, should be there, and for as many goals as that group gives up the underlying numbers are not terrible. They do a solid job limiting chances and shots, and they have the ability to score a shorthanded goal every now and then. The biggest issue statistically speaking is they have a .795 save percentage as a team on the PK. That could be stand to be a lot better, especially given how solid the shot attempt and shots against rates have been. That is tough to accept when you are giving up goals in bunches, but there is reason to think it can improve.
The power play, on the other hand, is starting to look hopeless.
It is not just the fact they do not score goals.
They never seem to be a threat to score goals.
Even worse they always seem to be a threat to give up goals.
Unlike the penalty kill there is nothing in the underlying numbers to indicate this group is unlucky or that there is any kind of a quick fix. It is not only one of the least efficient groups in the league, it is also one of the worst at generating shot attempts, shots on goal, and chances. Everything is worked around the perimeter. Nobody has a shooting mentality. There never seems to be any sort of plan or vision or coordinated strategy.
Probably the most stunning thing over the weekend was the realization that Anthony Angello was getting minutes as part of the second power play unit.
Had it not been for Semyon Varlamov losing an edge and falling down on Saturday night the power play would have had another 0-for-the-game night. Adding insult to the lack of success is that the Penguins as a team only have three more power play goals this season (nine) than Patric Hornqvisit has (six) by himself for the Florida Panthers.
These units are costing the Penguins points. They are giving points to their divisional opponents and other playoff contenders. They are making an already tight divisional playoff race that much tougher.