One of the biggest battles of the upcoming Penguins/Rangers series will be when New York has the man advantage. At 25.2%, the Rangers finished fourth in the league on the power play this season. The Pens’ PK ended up third at 84.4%, which seems great and a like-for-like strength-on-strength matchup, right?
Well, maybe not so much, since the season-level Pittsburgh penalty kill numbers aren’t reflective of where they are at right now.
Since the trade deadline on March 21st (where the Pens sent away Zach Aston-Reese in a trade), the Pittsburgh PK was only 79.0% down the stretch.
This time period also includes nine Casey DeSmith starts, which also hampers the penalty killing effort. DeSmith only had a .859 save% this season and yielded 14 goals while opponents were on the power play. (By comparison, Tristan Jarry had a .903 save% on the PK this season and only gave up 18 PPGs against. Jarry started 56 games and played 227 minutes short-handed, DeSmith 24 starts and 107 minutes, while almost giving up as many goals).
After giving up two power play goals against to Columbus on Friday night, coach Mike Sullivan was understandably not impressed by what he saw.
“I don’t think our penalty kill was as good [Friday],” Sullivan said. “Our penalty kill needs to get better. That’s an area where I think we’ve slipped over the last couple of weeks. A lot of it is just attention to detail and commitment and things of that nature. That’s one area where I didn’t think we were as good [Friday] and we had to be better.”
The Pens put a big focus on their penalty kill in practice yesterday, to fine tune the what the group wants to do. When at their best, they are aggressive and able to disrupt teams from getting setup and working their offense.
“A big part of the penalty kill is pressure, trying to force teams to make plays they don’t want to make,” Kris Letang said over the weekend. “The rest is battles, blocked shots, stuff like that. We can increase our collective game as a whole for the playoffs.”
Compare that to the Rangers, who thrive with their power play. The star players lead the way - Artemi Panarin had 37 power play points this season (and 32 were assists), Adam Fox didn’t have a PPG but racked up 33 power play assists as the main puck distributor that runs the show in the controlled offense. Chris Kreider put up a whopping 26 PPG this year, which led the whole NHL. Mika Zibanejad was dynamic with 15G+13A on the power play.
From @IneffectiveMath, you can see the impacts of Panarin/Fox with their right-handed shots on the left side and Kreider, reliably at the front of the net.
The above picture has no doubt been a focal point in Pittsburgh’s PK meetings and scouting: the danger starts to the goalie’s right, and of course is right in front of the net.
“There are certain things that we’re going to have to be aware of,” Sullivan said about the Rangers’ power play. “We have a big challenge ahead of us with respect to their power play. It’s been one of the better power plays in the league. We’re going to have to make sure we’re locked in and get the job done.”
The best defense to a good power play is simply to not even let them get on the ice. This could be a benefit for the Penguins, who were only short-handed for an average of 4:15 per game in 2021-22, third lowest in the league. As a team that isn’t overly physically aggressive, Pittsburgh isn’t prone to take a ton of penalties, which ought to help their cause and limit the amount of power play opportunities that New York even gets to attempt to score goals on.
“This group of players has done a terrific job for the majority of the year on the penalty kill,” Sullivan pointed out. “It’s been one of the strengths of our team. As of late, we haven’t been quite as good, but I know we’re capable of being a whole lot better. I know these guys are a committed group.”
That commitment will be tested by Fox, Panarin, Zibanejad and Kreider. How much damage the Rangers can (or can’t) do while up a player in this series against Casey DeSmith and the Pens will probably go a long way towards determining which team moves onto the second round of the playoffs.