In the last 10 years, only one team won the Stanley Cup with a penalty kill below average. In fact, from 2007-16, eight of the ten Stanley Cup winners possessed a shorthanded unit that finished inside the top 10 in penalty-kill percentage during the regular season.
It might not be sexy or headline grabbing, but penalty killing is an extremely important part of winning a championship. And entering the 2017 playoffs, it was the weakest part of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A year after finishing fifth in penalty-kill percentage, the Penguins regressed back into a tie for 19th in the league. They killed just 79.8 percent of their penalties during the regular season.
Pittsburgh turned that around in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but in the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final, the Nashville Predators scored four power-play goals. It appeared as though the penalty kill might cost the Penguins a chance to repeat. Instead, it was the reason Pittsburgh was able to close out Nashville in Game 6.
Penalty Killing Perfect 4-for-4
Pittsburgh posted a 86.0 penalty-kill percentage in its first 17 playoff games. That’s quite a stark improvement from the regular season numbers. At one point, the Penguins killed 17 straight penalties against the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators.
But after giving up two more man-advantage scores versus Nashville in Game 3, Pittsburgh was 10-for-15 (66.7 percent) while short-handed over a five-game period. There had to be a general fear that the Penguins were finally regressing back to their regular season form on the PK.
However, that wasn’t the case. Pittsburgh killed its final seven penalties during the last three games of the Stanley Cup. On Sunday in Game 6, the Penguins killed four, including a 5-on-3 shorthanded situation in a scoreless game late in the third period.
Warriors effort by the Penguins PK unit AND Matt Murray. Absolutely unbelievable.
— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) June 12, 2017
One More Game with Poor Officiating
As usual, the NHL officiating on Sunday left open the possibility for fans from both sides to have strong cases of conspiracy theories. The Predators appeared to score a goal early in the second period, but referee Kevin Pollock blew his whistle early, ending play.
From his angle of the goal, Pollock couldn’t see that a shot from Predators center Filip Forsberg actually slipped through Penguins goaltender Matt Murray’s arm and was sitting in the crease. Nashville forward Colton Sissons dove and knocked the loose puck into the net, but the early whistle nullified the goal.
The NHL referees had no choice but to disallow the score, but for the rest of the game, it appeared as though the referees were going to give the Predators the benefit of the doubt on every call. Pittsburgh didn’t receive a power play the entire game, and there were many instances where they could have. The referees also ensured to call a penalty on Trevor Daley when Nashville was already on the power play in the third period.
My gut says the Predators KNOW they won’t get a penalty called against them because of the No-goal. Too many obvious calls were non-calls.
— Dan Kingerski (@TheDanKingerski) June 12, 2017
This made the Penguins’ penalty kill even more important to winning Game 6. Without any power-play opportunities, the only way Pittsburgh was going to win the special teams battle was killing its own penalties. If not for all four kills, there’s probably a Game 7.
Penguins Making History
Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup despite owning the worst regular season penalty-kill percentage since the 1991 Penguins. It was also the first time since 1992 that a Stanley Cup winner possessed a penalty-kill percentage below 80 percent. That was also the Penguins.
February is when Mike Sullivan’s team started getting better while shorthanded, but it really improved once the playoffs began. Pittsburgh finished the postseason by killing 83.6 percent of its penalties. In the 2016 playoffs, the Penguins yielded 10 goals on the man advantage; this spring, they allowed 12 in one more game played. That’s not bad considering the difference in the regular-season numbers.
Seeing as though the penalty kill improved nearly 4.0 percent in the playoffs despite no Kris Letang is even more impressive. It took everybody the Penguins had to overcome the loss of Letang. Pittsburgh’s no-named defense collectively did a great job while forwards such as Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Bryan Rust, Chris Kunitz and Carl Hagelin were solid too.
Kunitz never regularly killed penalties in his life before February, but he took on the new role as a challenge and succeeded. Cullen was extremely important in the faceoff circle, especially Sunday without Bonino in the lineup. Cullen won the first faceoff in the 5-on-3 situation that helped keep the Predators off the scoreboard.
Without those heroics all postseason long, the Penguins don’t lift the Stanley Cup on Sunday.
Dave Holcomb is excited to join The Hockey Writers team, covering the Pittsburgh Penguins. Holcomb began his NHL work as a fantasy columnist at The Sports Network. In 2015, Holcomb joined the fantasy NHL team at FanRag Sports, where he eventually worked into a beat writer position, covering both the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins. He continues to cover the Metropolitan division, along with the NFL and Syracuse basketball, for FanRag Sports. To find more of his work, follow Holcomb on Twitter at @dmholcomb.