The Pittsburgh Penguins finally snapped their lengthy power play drought on Thursday night when Jake Guentzel buried a one-timer on a 4-on-3 advantage to tie the game against the Vegas Golden Knights.
It was a huge goal for two reasons.
The main reason being that it brought the Penguins back to even on the scoreboard and set the stage for Kasperi Kapanen’s game-winning goal just a few minutes later, completing an impressive come-from-behind win and getting them two big points that were richly deserved given the way they played. It was one of the Penguins’ best 5-on-5 efforts of the season and not getting the regulation win would have been wildly frustrating.
But it was also big for a power play unit that absolutely needed something to build on, especially after coming up small in its previous attempts on Thursday night. It has been a common trend in recent weeks, and for much of the season. The power play has a big opportunity, looks disjointed, gives up a few chances the other way, and steals momentum away from the team.
It is a very frustrating development because the talent level should absolutely be producing better results, and because special teams has been the one constant thorn in the side of the Penguins all season.
When it comes to 5-on-5 play the Penguins have quite literally been one of the best teams in the NHL.
They are top-10 in goal differential, expected goals, scoring chances, high-danger chances, and are generally carrying the play on most nights when the skaters are even. They have the foundation of being a very good team, even with some flaws and question marks throughout the lineup. They still produce results, and have the right process to make you think those results are sustainable.
But as soon as one side goes down a man, things just go sideways.
Earlier in the year it was the penalty kill that was holding them back, spotting opponents a goal or two on an almost nightly basis. That makes it nearly impossible to win when you are doing that. But that unit has rapidly turned around over the past few weeks, and despite a small step backwards on Thursday night is starting to get back to where it was in recent years when it was one of the best units in the league.
That has helped turn the season around in a big, meaningful way.
Now the problem is a power play unit that, after Thursday, still only ranks 27th in the league with just a 16.7 percent success rate.
Given the talent at their disposal, that is simply not good enough.
It is not a new problem, either. They were only 19th in the league a year ago at just 20.2 percent.
I am torn on some of this because the eye test is consistently horrible. They just look bad. They never seem to be a threat to score, they give up too much going the other way, and they never actually do score.
But if you look at some of the numbers it does point to a team that has been struck by some bad luck. Via Natural Stat Trick, they are in the top half of the league in terms of shot attempts, expected goals, and scoring chances during the power play, but are being absolutely sabotaged by a shooting percentage that is down near the bottom of the league.
Is it bad luck?
Poor structure and the wrong personnel?
Maybe a combination of both?
Probably a combination of both.
But one change that I absolutely want to see is giving Rickard Rakell a legitimate shot on the top unit.
He has been one of the Penguins’ best forwards this season, he has made every line that he plays on better, and it should not be a shock to you to know that he has also been one of their most dangerous forwards on the power play as well.
There have been 10 Penguins players that have logged at least 25 minutes of power play time so far this season and Rakell has been one of the best players out of that group.
His ranks among those 10 players in the following power play categories:
- Goals per 60 minutes: second (2.53)
- Assists per 60 minutes: eighth (1.26)
- Points per 60 minutes: fourth (3.79)
- Shots per 60 minutes: second (15.1)
- Individual expected goals per 60 minutes: second (2.89)
- Individual shot attempts per 60 minutes: first (29.1)
- Individual scoring chances per 60 minutes: third (16.4)
- Individual high-danger scoring chances per 60 minute: third (10.1)
- Individual shooting percentage on the power play: third (16.6 percent)
He has a shot-first mentality (which the top power play is sometimes lacking), he has finishing ability (which the top power play and the power play in general is also lacking), he makes everybody around him better, and most importantly he just flat out deserves the look.
The only power play category where he is not among the best players on the team is with his assist numbers, but he is also typically out there with the second pairing forwards and defenders. Give him a chance with the top guys and see what happens. It creates offense during 5-on-5 play so it stands to reason that it can help boost them on the power play as well.
At this point what do you have to lose with it? It is not like that unit is scoring goals with the current alignment and personnel groupings. Give me more Ricky Racks on the top power play and give it to me right now.