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Penguins penalty kill producing positive results

by Dan Rosen

NEW YORK -- Goals get celebrated, so it's no surprise the Pittsburgh Penguins power play has gotten more attention than their equally impressive penalty kill.

The Penguins are on a record-setting power-play pace at 37.5 percent coming into their game Tuesday against the New York Rangers. The 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens have the modern-era record for the best power play over a full season in NHL history at 31.88 percent.

But to ignore what the Penguins have done on the penalty kill, particularly their perfection in the past 10 games, is to ignore 50 percent of what has made Pittsburgh's special teams the best in the NHL this season.

The Penguins are third on the penalty kill (88.5 percent) and carry a streak of 37 consecutive successful kills into Madison Square Garden. They set a club record Saturday with their 10th consecutive game without allowing a power-play goal.

Pittsburgh has outscored the opposition 15-0 in special teams in the past 10 games. It is 8-1-1 in those games and is currently riding a seven-game winning streak.

"It's huge," captain Sidney Crosby said of the penalty kill. "You can kind of relate to being on the other side of things too, when your power play hasn't been able to get you those timely goals and teams are looking at that for momentum and to build off of their PK in a game. When your PK goes out and does the job, you certainly come back that next shift with a sense that you can jump on them and take advantage of that momentum."

The Penguins run of perfection on the penalty kill is somewhat surprising considering they were mostly flat in shorthanded situations in the first three games.

The Anaheim Ducks scored on three of their six power plays in the season-opener, but Pittsburgh at least managed to score a shorthanded goal and won 6-4. The Toronto Maple Leafs scored two power-play goals against Pittsburgh, but the Penguins still won 5-2.

Pittsburgh couldn't escape its penalty-kill problems against the Dallas Stars in its third game of the season. Tyler Seguin scored on the power play with three seconds left to lift Dallas to a 3-2 win. Since then the Penguins have been perfect on the PK.

"We didn't change anything, I think we've just had better execution," Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said.

Execution definitely has a lot to do with their PK success, but there is also no denying that part of the Penguins early PK problems stemmed from systematic changes that coach Mike Johnston and assistant coach Gary Agnew were implementing.

Johnston said he came in with the goal of using the foundation of the Penguins penalty kill from last season, which was fifth in the NHL at 85 percent, but to tweak it with some minor adjustments.

One such adjustment was adopting a more aggressive forecheck.

It took some time, but the Penguins have been doing a good job of preventing teams from entering the offensive zone cleanly, forcing them into quick decisions that routinely end up in dump-ins off the end boards.

"The biggest thing is on the entries, we don't want teams to be able to skate over the blue line and have clear control," said Penguins center Brandon Sutter, who averages 2:46 of shorthanded ice time per game. "If they're going to set up where they want, we have to make them work for it and not make it easy for them. I think our up-ice pressure has been the biggest thing."

Johnston said the up-ice pressure is a result of good reads by the forwards to understand when they can pressure and when they need to back off.

"We have two or three ways through the neutral zone that we'll adjust from team to team, so we try to throw a couple different things at them," Johnston said.

In addition, Scuderi said the defensemen are being asked to sag deeper in the zone to prevent backdoor plays.

"We're not trying to challenge so far high up," he said. "I know that's been a focus, to try to squish it down low. If a guy has the puck on the half wall and he's not in a dangerous spot, why challenge him? It's not worth it."

The other aspect of Pittsburgh's penalty kill -- and perhaps the most important -- is the fact it has been getting excellent goaltending in shorthanded situations. Marc-Andre Fleury and Thomas Greiss have combined to stop 62 shots on the PK in the past 10 games.

"We're a little more aggressive, you could say, but [Fleury] has been incredible in net," said forward Pascal Dupuis, who averages 2:12 of shorthanded ice time per game. "It's the old cliché and we always say it, but that's one we know is true, when your goalie is your best penalty killer you kill penalties."


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