Penguins’ Special Teams Prime Club for Cup Run

To this point, the 2013 playoffs have been largely inconsistent for the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The first round, in particular, was filled with erratic goaltending, defensive lapses, and uninspired play.  Yet, at the same time, those same Penguins scored more goals than any other club, recorded two shutouts and dispatched of an underrated Islanders team in six games.

Tyler Kennedy (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Tyler Kennedy (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

So what are we to make of this Pittsburgh squad?  Are they truly primed for a run at the Cup?

Well, according to Scotty Bowman’s “Special Teams Formula”, they certainly are.  The legendary coach surmised that, to be a true contender, a team’s power play and penalty kill ranking should add up to no more than ten.  Though this number admittedly pertains more to a squad’s regular season performance than that in the playoffs, the theory still holds some postseason merit.  In fact, since the ’04-’05 lockout, the average Stanley Cup champion’s “Bowman number” has been 12.86 and only the 2011 Bruins (20) had a higher number than 15.

As we continue into the early stages of the second round, only three clubs – San Jose (11), Chicago (9) and Pittsburgh (4) – find themselves below that 12.86 average.  And while the Blackhawks and Sharks have put up some impressive numbers, the Penguins have been, hands down, the most dominant club on special teams thus far in the playoffs.

So, let’s take a closer look at what the Penguins are doing.

The Power Play

Having boasted the regular season’s second ranked (24.7%) power play, it’s no surprise that the Penguins possess the playoff’s top ranked man advantage.  Through seven games, the unit is absolutely torching opponents, clipping at an astounding 36%.  The group was paramount to dismissing the Islanders in six games and it created a greater disparity on the scoreboard than what may have been warranted in Game 1 against Ottawa.

So what makes the Pens’ power play so successful?

 “They have, basically, five all-stars on the first PP unit that are moving the puck around.  And it’s not easy to chase them and get hits on them when they’re moving the puck properly.” – Marc Methot, Ottawa Senators Defenseman

Evgeni Malkin and James Neal need to be reunited with Chris Kunitz. (Tom Turk/THW)
Chris Kunitz. (Tom Turk/THW)

But there’s more to it than just that.  As Shawn P. Roarke explains, the Penguins take all that talent and funnel it into a specific system that allows them to gain puck possession in the attacking zone as quickly as possible and then let their supreme talent take over.  What’s more, virtually everyone on the power play is comfortable anywhere in the offensive zone, making the unit incredible versatile.  As James Neal points out:

“I think just our different looks. There are so many guys that have great shots and can score from anywhere. It’s dangerous from everywhere.  It’s not like that one guy has that big shot and they can take it away and limit chances. If you take one guy away, there’s another guy that is just as dangerous if not more dangerous. That’s tough to cover.”

Let’s take a look at some specific examples.

First Round vs. the Islanders , Game 3

With the Islanders playing their first home playoff game since 2007, the home team was dominating Pittsburgh.  Building a 2-0 lead, New York looked to be on their way to a shocking series lead…until they took consecutive penalties, gift wrapping a 5 on 3 Penguins’ advantage.  Wasting little time, the Pens struck for two goals in 19 seconds, tying the score at two.  Despite being outplayed for much of the afternoon, the Pittsburgh power play struck again in overtime to give the East’s top seed a win they may not have deserved.

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Second Round vs. the Senators, Game 1

In a game that was much closer than the 4-1 final indicated the Penguins power play did the Senators in.  Going two for three, the Penguins’ man advantage blew the game open and allowed Pittsburgh to skate to a comfortable victory.

“Their power play is good. We knew that going in and if we want to have good chance to win a game we’re going to have to shoot down their special teams. It’s huge for them. If we’re able to kill those off, it’s a different game.” – Craig Anderson, Senator’s goaltender

While Ottawa held its own against the Penguins at even strength, they were dominated in the special teams battle, like the Islanders, and it cost them.  If they are going to make this a competitive series, they’ve got to find a way to either slow down the Pens’ potent power play or, at the very least, limit their opportunities.

The Penalty Kill

Unlike the power play, the Penguins’ penalty kill has been a pleasant surprise in the playoffs.  Struggling for much of the regular season, the third ranked unit (92%) in the postseason has been just as dominant as the Pittsburgh man advantage.

[THW’s Mike Colligan explains here how the Pittsburgh penalty kill works]

As Sam Kasan explains, this unit needed time to get acquainted with one another.  With newcomers such as Brandon Sutter, Tanner Glass and Douglas Murray replacing the likes of Jordan Stall and Zbynek Michalek, there were bound to be some growing pains.  Fortunately for Pens fans, the squad seems to be passed all that, now.  Having given up only two power play goals in seven postseason games, Pittsburgh seems to have regained the form of their ’10-’11 short-handed unit.

Going into the series, most pundits gave John Tavares and the Islanders 11th ranked power play an advantage over the Pittsburgh penalty killing unit.  But New York was never able to exploit a Penguins unit that struggled during the regular season.  While they controlled much of the play at even strength throughout the series, the Isles never got going on the power play.  And that, combined with their inability to stop a potent Pittsburgh power play, is what ultimately cost the Islanders the series.

Second Round vs. the Senators, Game 1

As important as the power play was to Pittsburgh’s Game 1 victory, the win may not have happened without the penalty killing effort.  Any momentum the Sens gained from what they accomplished at even strength was destroyed when the Penguins killed off all six Ottawa power plays and, just to rub salt in the wound, Pascal Dupuis added a short-handed tally to put the game out of reach.

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Simply put, the Penguins’ special teams have carried the club through the playoffs to this point.  If the power play and penalty kill both continue to dominate, Pittsburgh will certainly give themselves a shot at bringing home another Cup.  Just ask Scotty Bowman.