After spending much of the fall on the outside of playoff bubble, the Pittsburgh Penguins turned their season around after the New Year. Most aspects of their game have been significantly better in 2018 than they were for the 2017 portion of the season.
In the fall, the Penguins ranked 20th in points; in the spring, they’ve claimed the sixth most points in the league. In the fall, their star-laden power play was third at a 24.8% conversion rate; they improved to second with a 27.4% rate in the spring.
But one area in which the team has failed to improve is the penalty kill— and that special team is dragging the Penguins down as they attempt to push through their final stretch of games.
Penguins’ Penalty Kill Success Over the Season
The penalty kill was one of the Penguins’ greatest weaknesses as they struggled through the fall; they were ranked 18th in the league, killing off just over 80% of opposing teams’ man advantages. But in the spring, it’s one of the only main aspects of their game that has actually become markedly worse. Since Jan. 1, the Penguins are killing penalties at a 78.5% rate, which ranks 20th in the league.
The Penguins are 8-6 in the month of March. In each of those past six losses, they have given up at least one goal to the other team’s power play; in three of those losses, they allowed multiple goals while shorthanded.
A potent power play unit has not been able to make up for the defensive weaknesses the Penguins display while shorthanded. For an example, look at the special teams in the Penguins’ Tuesday loss to the Detroit Red Wings. The Penguins only got one shot on the goal in two power play attempts. The Red Wings, on the other hand, got four on net on the man advantage, three of which were within the face-off circles— and one of which was a goal. That kind of discrepancy between special teams spells disaster for the Penguins. And it’s something they’ll need to address quickly, with only five games remaining in the regular season.
Related: Penguins’ Power Play Slump
Hope for the Penguins’ Penalty Kill
It makes sense, when looking at the opponents the Penguins have been coming up against in the month of March, why their penalty kill has been suffering. Four of the six losses the Penguins took in the month of March were against teams ranked in the top ten on the power play since Jan. 1 (the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and New York Islanders are ranked fifth-eighth, respectively.) These teams have been hot on the man advantage this half of the season, and it’s understandable that a struggling penalty kill would buckle against them.
That’s where the Penguins have some hope in this last stretch of games. The Ottawa Senators and the Columbus Blue Jackets have each had bottom-ten penalty kills in 2018, and neither the New Jersey Devils nor the Montreal Canadiens have cracked the 23% success rate on their power play necessary move into the league’s top ten.
What should most concern the Penguins is their matchup against the Washington Capitals, a crucial game which has the potential to determine whether or not the Penguins will be receiving home-ice advantage during the playoffs. After a disappointing fall for their special teams, the Capitals have had the best power play in the league since Jan. 1, just edging out the Penguins by 0.1% with a 27.4% success rate.
Penguins Looking to Improve
The Penguins are having a hard time boxing out the opposing team when in the defensive zone on the man advantage. They’re allowing too many shot opportunities and letting themselves get trapped in the zone. They’re going to need to combat this tendency in the last few games as they stare down crucial division matchups.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.