There are several reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins have been able to get back on track following their early season seven-game losing streak. Swapping wingers on the top two lines, reshuffling the defense pairs, and simply getting some better goaltending are all at the top of the list.
But one of the biggest reasons might be the fact the penalty kill has done a complete 180 from where it was earlier in the year.
For whatever flaws this roster has, even during the losing streak they were still playing fairly well during 5-on-5 play. It was when one team (either team) went down by a man that everything fell apart. The special teams is where they hit a rut. The power play was a mess (and still kind of is) and the penalty kill was bleeding goals against. They were spotting teams at least one goal every game, getting overwhelmed with shots and shot attempts, and simply not playing anything close to competitive hockey.
At one point they had one of the worst PK success rates in the entire NHL.
It is really, really, REALLY difficult to win that way in this league.
You can get by with a sub-par power play. But if you are giving up a goal or two every game while shorthanded? You are going to be in for a bad time.
But over the past two-and-a-half weeks, where the Penguins have gone on a 6-1-1 run, the penalty kill has been absolute money.
Over the past eight games the Penguins are successfully killing off 92 percent of their PK situations, which is the best in the NHL during that stretch, And they have shown some strong improvement across the board as a unit.
They have significantly decreased the number of shots and scoring chances against, and most importantly the goaltending has been sensational in shorthanded situations. The duo of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith has combined for a .942 save percentage in PK situations after having one of the worst marks in the league prior to that.
The potential red flag there is it should not be expected for those two to maintain that level of save percentage in PK situations all year. That would be completely unsustainable and setting an unreachable bar. But it was also true that they probably were not going to maintain the low mark they had early in the year. Percentages fluctuate throughout the season. It’s simple regression to the mean at play.
The key will be the Penguins’ ability to limit shots and chances (and stay out of the penalty box). And they have been much, much better at that over the past eight games. They have been in the top half of the league in terms of suppressing shots and chances over the past eight game and starting to inch their way closer to the top-10.
The PK has been a strength of the Penguins in recent years and it needs to be again for this team to have success.
I think the early struggles come down to a couple of factors: They overturned most of the personnel they were using on that PK unit with a new group of forwards and a new group of defenders. Combine that with sub-par goaltending and the absence of a player like Teddy Blueger, and you have the recipe for some struggles.
The goalies are playing better, the new additions are finding their rhythm, and Blueger is back in the lineup. It is a big reason the season is starting to turn around.