Entering play on Jan. 19, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the only team in the NHL with 19 victories on home ice. The Penguins have won 12 of their last 13 games at PPG Paints Arena and have lost just two games in regulation at home all season.
It’s great to be that dominant at home, but squads so good in front of their own crowd tend to struggle on the road. That’s certainly the case for Pittsburgh in 2016-17, as they own a 9-9-3 away record.
The good news, though, is Pittsburgh snapped a three-game losing skid on the road with a victory Wednesday at Montreal. It may have been the Penguins’ most complete win away from home the entire season. Let’s take a look to see how Pittsburgh can continue to improve on the road before the postseason.
Commitment to Defense
The biggest difference between Wednesday’s contest and the three previous road games for Pittsburgh was the team’s commitment to defense. The Penguins have played a lot of high scoring affairs this season and proven they can win that way, leading the NHL in goals.
But, after an 8-7 victory against Washington on Monday, the team appeared to wake up defensively Wednesday. Playing a tight checking game can really take the crowd out of it and make a huge difference on the road.
Against the Canadiens, Pittsburgh yielded just 12 shots on net through the first two periods and 20 total in the game. The Penguins were also smart, staying out of the box and killed off the only penalty the team faced.
In the previous three road games, Pittsburgh allowed 32.33 shots on net per contest and committed 12 penalties over that span.
Remaining Patient Offensively
This goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to defense. Pittsburgh has fallen so in love with its offensive game, there are times where the team appears to have less desire to play at both ends of the rink.
Sullivan: "I don’t think we played the game the right way. We’re trying to outscore teams instead of trying to outplay teams."
— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) January 15, 2017
This has been especially true in games where offense has been harder to come by. Pittsburgh is averaging a healthy 2.86 goals per game on the road this season. But at home, the Penguins score a whopping 4.26 goals per contest.
When they don’t score early in road games or struggle to find offense, Sidney Crosby and company have pressed at times. That leads to defensemen pinching unnecessarily and poor puck management in the neutral zone. Rather than making the smart play, the Penguins superstars sometimes attempt to make a spectacular play that isn’t there. That leads to breakouts in the other direction.
Yes, Pittsburgh can play better defensively, but a lot of their problems on the road is giveaways at the offensive end and in the neutral zone. In order to have more success on the road, the Penguins must realize if they remain patient offensively and make smart plays with the puck, the offense will come. Their offense isn’t as good in away games, but 2.86 goals per game is still a tremendous average.
Staying disciplined like Pittsburgh did Wednesday against Montreal remains a key, but when they do get in penalty trouble, the Penguins need to kill penalties with more consistency. At 78.3-percent, Pittsburgh is ranked 25th in penalty kill percentage this season, but that number is 2.1-percent worse on the road (76.2-percent).
Prior to Wednesday, Pittsburgh has allowed a power-play goal in seven of the last eight road affairs, including five straight. When the Penguins give up a score on the man advantage on the road, they are just 5-8-0.
Center Matt Cullen, an important penalty killer, is out the next three-to-four weeks, so Eric Fehr will be more important than ever. Coach Mike Sullivan also moved veteran wing Chris Kunitz to the penalty killing unit this week. With Kunitz, the PK has shown signs of improvement in a small sample size, killing 4-of-5 in the last two games.
The Penguins’ power play also isn’t as good on the road. While Pittsburgh has the second-best home man advantage, the team is ranked 20th away from home (28.4 success rate at home versus 16.9 on the road).
That drop in percentage makes the team’s commitment to defense and killing penalties even more important in road games. The Penguins cannot count on their power play bailing them out on the road.
Fortunately, Sullivan’s squad laid the groundwork for successful play away from home on Wednesday night. Expect Pittsburgh to build off that moving forward.