PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh's penalty-killing unit has been flawless for the past nine games, killing off 30-straight shorthanded situations.
But if the Penguins plan to extend their run at perfection to a franchise-best 10 games -- as well as extend their winning streak to eight games -- Thursday night at the Consol Energy Center, they'll have to be better than ever. Their opponents, the red-hot Atlanta Thrashers, walk into the Steel City with a six-game winning streak that has been fueled, in large part, by a clinically effective power play.
The Thrashers rank third in the League in power-play efficiency, scoring 24 goals in 101 opportunities (23.8 percent). Amazingly, they have been even more effective on the road, scoring 12 goals in 46 opportunities.
That juggernaut will be countered by a Pittsburgh penalty kill that sits atop the League standings after killing 95 of 105 man-down situations so far this season. They have been even more effective lately, not only with a nine-game run of perfection but with an extended streak that has seen the team allow a power-play goal in just two of the past 15 games.
The success for the Thrashers on the power play rests in the fact they have defensemen willing to shoot the puck early and often, a hallmark of coach Craig Ramsay's philosophy with the man-advantage.
"We don't do anything fancy out there; we just shoot pucks," defenseman Dustin Byfuglien told NHL.com.
Nobody, in fact, shoots more than Byfuglien, who leads the team with 102 shots. Most of them -- especially on the power play -- are of the slap shot variety.
"It's nice to have Buff back there firing away, but I've always believed that if you get enough pucks at the goalie, you give him a chance to make a mistake," Ramsay told NHL.com.
So Pittsburgh knows its mandate will be to stop Byfuglien from teeing it up from the point. But that is easier said then done. The big defenseman, unlike many players of that ilk, does not need a ton of time to get off what is considered one of the heaviest shots in the League. Plus, he is versatile and unselfish enough -- unpredictable was the term Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma used in his Thursday morning comments -- to dish the puck to fellow defenseman Tobias Enstrom when the penalty kill marshals all its resources to take away his booming shot from the point.
As a result, both Byfuglien and Enstrom have 13 points on the power play, the highest amount of man-advantage points by a defenseman in the League.
Bylsma admitted Thursday that his unit would be in for it Thursday night on the penalty kill, admitting the prospect of stepping in front of a cannon-shot from Byfuglien was not high on the list of any of his penalty-killing forwards.
"They will have to wear at as a badge of honor if they get hit by him," Bylsma said. "(His shot) is only a couple of miles faster than the other guys in the League. That's how I look at it."
Bylsma laughed as he said that, making a joke of the perils of staring down a puck propelled by close to 100 mph of force. He can do so because he has absolute faith in his penalty killers at this point in the season, and he knows that any one of the forwards that see shorthanded ice time for the Penguins will gladly take one for the team if it is required.
"We trust each other," Maxime Talbot told NHL.com, discussing the penalty killers. "We know that there are plays that have to be made as part of our penalty-killing system and we know now that we will make them.
Talbot, who leads Penguin forwards in penalty-killing time on ice (3:11 a game), says he knows that if he gets caught being too aggressive, his penalty-killing partner, Matt Cooke has his back and will make whatever play is necessary to neutralize the threat.
The trust shared by Pittsburgh's penalty killers -- defensemen Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin and Kris Letang and forwards Talbot, Cooke, Craig Adams and Pascal Dupuis -- is the foundation of the unit's success, breeding an aggressiveness that puts opposing power plays on their heels.
"They chase," Ramsay says of the Penguin power play. "They really work. They are good about attacking, wherever it is on the ice. That's always a key issue for a penalty kill. If you play safe, somebody will always make a play. The Penguins force a power play to be perfect and when power plays try to be perfect, they aren’t successful."