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Devils still believe in penalty kill despite struggles

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Devils still believe in penalty kill despite struggles
A unit that set a post-expansion NHL record for efficiency during the regular season suddenly can't produce a kill, but New Jersey's players insisted it's a matter of lucky not going their way.

NEWARK, N.J. -- How is it possible that a record-producing penalty-killing unit during the regular season can suddenly be ripped to shreds in the opening round of the playoffs?

As frustrating as it may sound, the answers aren't as clear-cut as you might think. Still, New Jersey Devils coach Pete DeBoer, who at this point can only tip his cap to the feisty Florida Panthers, is adamant about one thing.

"We better figure it out fast," DeBoer said.

That response came on Tuesday night during DeBoer's postgame press conference when the wounds of blowing a 3-0 lead and dropping a 4-3 decision in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series were still fresh on the mind.

The Panthers went a perfect 3-for-3 on eight shots with the man advantage on Tuesday. They are now 6-for-10 in the series against a Devils team that entered these playoffs with the No. 1-ranked penalty-killing unit during the regular season behind a post-expansion NHL record 89.6 percent efficiency. On top of that, the Devils also led the League with 15 shorthanded goals.

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"If you look at all their power-play goals, I don't think there's a strategy that could prevent them," Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador told NHL.com. "They got some good shots and good rebounds. I don't think you have to change anything. It's just that they're getting some shots and good rebounds, and some of those bounces are ending up in our net."

The Devils' penalty-killing is the million-dollar question that surrounds this series. While DeBoer can credit the Panthers all he wants, something has gone awry with what was not too long ago considered to be a seemingly impenetrable corps.

"There is a sort of a structure in what we want to do and how we react to different situations," forward Dainius Zubrus told NHL.com. "We have those so-called trigger moments, when we feel we can pressure them."

During the year, Zubrus said the PK unit didn't want to allow an opponent to make between four and five tape-to-tape passes before getting a shot on net.

"We try to challenge them, and put them in a sort of uncomfortable position where we put pressure and hurry them to make decisions," Zubrus said. "So far, it's been a combination of maybe us not being structurally as good as we want to be and them having guys who can shoot the puck and make plays. Every team in the NHL has guys who are going to be put on the power play, guys who can sense an open guy and play with their head up. It's nothing new. Right now, if there's a rebound, it goes to their stick. If there's a tip, it doesn't hit the post or go wide, but it goes in -- it just seems like we hit a bit of tough stretch."

The Panthers did possess the League's seventh-best power-play in 2011-12, converting at an 18.5-percent rate, but could anyone have expected this? In four regular-season meetings against the Devils, the Panthers connected for just one power-play goal in 11 chances, including an 0-for-5 effort in a 4-3 victory on Nov. 21.

"We have to get that little swagger back on our PK that we had during the season," Devils captain Zach Parise said. "Come in and watch the film with us, and if there's a point where you feel we could have gotten it out … I don't think so. It's frustrating for everyone to say 'PK this' or 'PK that.' It's not as if we're not clearing the puck when we get chances or that we're terribly out of position. Everyone just needs to be a little sharper."

The bottom line is the Panthers own a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series because they are converting at a ridiculous 60-percent clip on the power play in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Devils are tied for dead last among the 16 participating playoff teams on the penalty-kill at 40 percent.

"They've had some bounces and a little bit of puck luck, and some of it we brought on ourselves," DeBoer said following his team's practice on Wednesday. "I don't see a drastic change from what we were doing the last week of the season. It's not working right now. The easy thing to do would be to throw it all away and start again, and that makes no sense. We just have to tweak it and stick with it."

DeBoer was asked if it has suddenly become imperative that his team stay out of the penalty box if it is to have any shot at winning this series.

"We can't let [their PP] paralyze us to where we're walking around playing with pillows on our pads," DeBoer said. "It's hockey and you have to compete. The edge has to be there. All year, our penalty kill has allowed us to play with that edge, and it hasn't come back to bite us. It has in two of these games, so I think the easier answer is getting our penalty kill back on track, and not lay off playing with an edge."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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I just think about how much it hurts. The feelings aren't going to go away, probably never. It's just something that sticks with you for a long time.

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