The Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play was put under a microscope Wednesday night when a fumbled change during a man advantage gave the Montreal Canadiens all the time and space in the world to saunter up to the net and put in a short-handed goal, tying the game at 2-2.
While the Penguins did convert twice on the power play on their way to a 5-3 victory over the Canadiens, Nikita Scherbak’s short-handed tally was the symptom of a special team that has been struggling to click as of late. But with two goals on the man advantage on Wednesday, is the Penguins’ March power play slump over?
Penguins’ Power Play Throughout the Season
After spending most of the fall on the outside of the playoff bubble, the Penguins started turning their season around after their post-New Year bye week. As one of January’s hottest teams, they pushed themselves up from fighting to stay on the bubble to vying for first in the division.
One of the mechanisms propelling the Penguins to the top was their power play, which was functioning as the best in the league. In the month of January, they converted on a full third of their power play opportunities, by far the best rate in the NHL.
But, the Penguins’ power play has been flagging as of late. Was the beginning of 2018 just a fluke, or can they return to their earlier rate of success on the man advantage?
Changing Power Play Rate
The Penguins’ 31.7% conversion rate from Jan. 1- Feb. 28 was better than the Los Angeles Kings’ second-place power play over that stretch by a full five percent. With 19 goals on 60 opportunities, their goals on the man advantage accounted for almost a full fifth of the team’s scoring during the first two months of the year.
Within the month of March, however, the Penguins’ 5-on-4 fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. In the past ten games, in which team has gone 6-3-1, the power play is clicking at a relatively sluggish 20.7%. Before the Wednesday win against the Canadiens, the unit had been operating in the bottom half of the league at 15% for the month, with only four goals in 26 opportunities.
In January, Penguins special teams scored multiple goals in five out of twelve games. In March, they’ve accomplished that feat in only one of ten. What’s changed? We can say one thing for sure: it’s not the amount of shot opportunities the power play is getting.
The Penguins Power Play in March
Although the March power play has been much less successful in converting opportunities into goals, the special teams are still continually putting shots on goal at a steady rate on the man advantage.
The Penguins haven’t gone a single game in March with zero shots on the power play. The team has actually been averaging a higher amount of shots per power play opportunity this month than they were at the beginning of the year. In January, they averaged 1.475 shots per opportunity; in March so far, that rate has climbed to 1.535.
|Month||Number of 5v4 opportunities||Average shots per 5v4||Average goals per 5v4|
|March (through Mar. 21)||26||1.535||0.212|
While the Penguins aren’t yet matching January’s production rates, they’re getting more shots on goal per man advantage than they were in January. That indicates that their scoring rate should eventually rise if the team’s shooting percentage on the power play regresses to the norm established in January and February.
Penguins’ Power Play on the Rise?
The Penguins had multiple power play goals in a single game for the first time in the month of March during Wednesday’s match against the Canadiens. That’s a good sign with regards to the regression of their power play units back to the dominant force they were for the first two months of the year. As March finishes up, there’s a chance the Penguins’ goal-scoring rate will rise to meet their shot rate on the man advantage.
The shot opportunities the Penguins were getting during the power play this month showed that something was going to give eventually. Perhaps the Canadiens game is the spark the Penguins needed to push out of this month’s relative slump as they look for an edge in their fight for home ice advantage over the next two weeks.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.