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Penguins must fix power play to get season on track

It’s obvious, but also true - the Penguins’ season depends on having a viable power play

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New Jersey Devils v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Stating the obvious doesn’t make the point any less true — in 20 games this season the Pittsburgh Penguins are sitting with as many wins as losses (10 a piece) mostly because of their power play. In almost every regard the man advantage has been no advantage at all for the Pens:

  • It has only scored seven total goals all season.
  • In 16 out of the 20 games, it hasn’t scored at all.
  • The teams the Pens’ power play HAS scored against (Buffalo, San Jose, Anaheim, Washington) reads a lot different than the ones who have shut them down (which is everyone else they’ve played; a list that includes Toronto, NY Rangers, Vegas, Carolina, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Dallas and Colorado).
  • In the normal situation of the 5v4 power play, Pittsburgh is only scoring the opposition 6-3.

The further one digs, the more depressing the stats and news becomes, so we might as well stop right there. About the only good news is actually the bad news that at just 2.8 power play opportunities per game (30th in NHL), there’s at least limited chances for the power play to punt the momentum within the game.

If that wasn’t frustrating enough, this 12.5% power play that ranks 26th in the league was designed and counted on to be a massive team strength after adding Erik Karlsson. Instead has turned into a major headache and big weakness, growing by the day, though it might have peaked when Karlsson literally passed a tie game away with 15 seconds left against Anaheim. Turns out the Penguins’ power play is taking a page out of NFL Redzone’s Witching Hour (“where wins become losses, and losses become wins!)...Only in the reverse of how it was intended.

Over the next 20 games, the best chance of the Pens rising is getting that fixed. It is extremely difficult to see any alternative to getting the season in gear without such an obvious problem changing and contributing in a positive way.

Based on the setup at practice on Monday, the latest idea is getting Bryan Rust back involved with the top group. That’s a good sign moving forward since Rust has missed the last three games with an injury that he might not be missing any further action.

The current personnel is also a necessary step to abandon last week’s ill-fated idea to split Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby off the top group. To the surprise of no one, putting Vinnie Hinostroza with Crosby and Erik Karlsson and cutting Malkin’s power play time resulted in generating exactly zero goals for the team.

The ideas and opinions to drive change are as various as the day is long; fire a coach, shoot more, get traffic to the net, change tactics, alter setups, keep it simple, split talent, combine talent, play grinders ask an 88-year old for advice. Aside from the drastic, many of these have been at least attempted, however little has worked to improve the results.

What will it actually take to turn it around? It’s a statement of fact that the power play needs to be better, but the key question is how will it do so? The team has been searching for precisely that answer. They have pulled all the levers and pressed all the buttons from the standard playbook to try some different things, emphasize special teams work in practice (such as today, where significant time was spent), saying the right things but it hasn’t worked.

The problem for the Pens is there is no simple solution, and possibly no silver bullet to change everything on a dime. Getting traffic to the front of the net won’t make a difference if Karlsson and Malkin have no option but spray shots into penalty killers. Nick Bonino probably needs new shin pads after the Rangers’ 1-0 win against Pittsburgh last week after paying an easy price to stagnate the Pittsburgh power play. Gaining clean zone entries doesn’t mean much if it’s followed up by perimeter passing that leads to no where. The sad but frustrating reality an easy tweak, change or design doesn’t exist that would right all the wrongs instantly.

And yet, they must find a way to change and improve somehow. The Penguins’ power play boasts three future Hall of Famers who have been some of the very best offensive players in this era in Crosby, Karlsson and Malkin. They have a perennial point per game player in Jake Guentzel. Kris Letang is around (though, for reasons unknown the one piece of the puzzle who hasn’t been shuffled around and back to the big group during the regular season). They have to score. How they go about getting from Point A to Point B it is up to them — which is the inconvenient truth about highly skilled power plays, and NHL power plays in general. A guy in a suit behind the bench can tell them to do whatever, but it’s going to work (or not) when the most important people get focused and dedicated to completing the task at hand.

Hey, as this started out- stating the obvious doesn’t make the point any less true.