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The Penguins’ big problem (besides goaltending)

When you talk PIT/NYI, you can’t avoid the factor that the lack of power plays have had

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Five Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Goaltending, both for and against the Penguins, is getting the lede in all analysis. And for good reason. Tristan Jarry has provided some of the worst goaltending in the 2021 playoffs. Ilya Sorokin has given some of the best. As a result, the Islanders are up in the series.

That’s pretty much all you need to know to have a handle on the current situation, however there’s more facets to the story. This time of year there are so many factors that conspire to make one team a winner and the other a loser. On any given night, in a game with thousands of decisions made, the outcome can be determined by one bad call. As Jarry needs no reminder of this morning.

If we can breakaway from that, if for only a second, how is this for another reason why the Penguins are down 3-2 in the first round — they’ve only scored two power play goals in five games.

This is partially their fault, they’re only two for 10 with the player advantage, but it’s also partially outside of their control. The officials in the Pens/Isles series have basically skipped to the extreme when it comes to enforcing rules:

Pittsburgh’s 2.0 power play opportunities per game so far ranks 15th in the NHL playoffs this season. There are only 16 teams in the playoffs. The Islanders aren’t much ahead at 2.8 power plays per game (10th).

It’s pointless and useless to bemoan what the refs are missing, or even what they are choosing to penalize. Obviously in any NHL game there are instances for both teams where they’ve gotten away with breaking rules, and this isn’t a matter of the refs opting to turn a blind eye specifically towards the Penguins or their opponent.

The bigger and more important area of concern is that they have swallowed their whistles in this series the first place.

Although, after a Game 4 loss on Saturday, coach Mike Sullivan mentioned a penalty in his comments.

“We get [30] seconds of power [play] -time to seven-plus minutes [for New York]”, Sullivan said. “That’s a big discrepancy, we can’t take the amount of penalties that we took.”

While he framed it as an improvement area for the Pens to avoid the penalty box, it was no doubt an observation beyond that for league officials to see that the Pittsburgh coach noticed the disrecepancy.

Whether as a result of not, Pittsburgh went to the power play twice in Game 5. Both times, unsurprisingly, were in the early stages of the game. The Pens scored the game’s opening goal via an Evgeni Malkin shot while on the power play.

However, the impact of the special teams was limited to that.

There’s a stark difference in how the other East division semifinal was called. The Boston/Washington series was a power play-fest, with the Capitals getting 4.2 opportunities per game, and the Bruins getting 3.8. The Pittsburgh/New York series has seen almost half the chances.

Despite what the refs could have called in a series ripe with punches to the head, cross-checks, hooks, holds, slashes, obstructions, the refs in Pens/NYI have let almost everything go.

The end result is a disadvantage for Pittsburgh, who own one of the NHL’s best power plays, compared to the Islanders, who own one of the worst. The Pens would have the opportunity to thrive more in a series filled with power plays — for both teams.

In a series where the Pens have, ahem, struggled to score enough goals, the special teams aspect of the game has been almost neutered by the way the refs have called the games. To be very clear, that is not THE reason why Pittsburgh is down in the series, that would be the play of their goalie and the play of the opposite goalie...But the Pens have had to struggle with earning looks for their power play, and that’s another hurdle that they’ll have to clear.

This is doubly true on the road, where the Pens have only received three power plays in two games in the Islanders’ building. The trends by now are very clear — any power play chance in Game 6 that Pittsburgh may earn is going to be very valuable, very crucial, and if the way the series has unfolded is any indication, probably very rare.

The Pens will need to take the utmost advantage of any chance they get, including considering calling their lone timeout of the game to rest players or draw up a play in a key offensive zone start. Power play looks have been rare, so the team must consider any chance they get a very important moment in the course of Game 6.