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Red Wings having problems killing penalties

by John Kreiser
Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Final GearPITTSBURGH -- Keeping the number of power-play goals against your team to a minimum is a two-part process. First, you have to avoid a parade to the penalty box. Second, you have to kill off the power plays you do allow.

The Detroit Red Wings have done an excellent job at staying out of the penalty box during this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's the second part of the equation that's been causing them a lot of trouble. Detroit is two wins away from repeating as Stanley Cup champion despite penalty-killing numbers that would befit a last-place team -- 71.4 percent overall and 65.5 percent away from home.

"For whatever reason, we've had some trouble with it," defenseman Brad Stuart said after Tuesday's 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final -- a game in which the Penguins scored twice in three chances on the power play. "If we knew exactly why we would have corrected it. We're getting some bad breaks. The last goal, we just got caught out there and were a little gassed.

"We've come up with some timely kills, but definitely statistically this doesn't look too good."

Though the Wings have a reputation for having terrific special teams, their penalty-killers struggled all season, especially on the road -- and those problems have worsened during the playoffs.

Though Detroit was second in the Western Conference this season, they struggled to kill penalties, finishing 25th among the 30 teams at 78.3 percent. That was the worst figure among any of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs. Most of those problems came away from Joe Louis Arena -- the Wings were an OK-but-not-spectacular 80.4 percent team on the penalty kill at home, but killed off just 76.4 percent of opposition power plays on the road, next-to-last in the NHL and just barely ahead of Tampa Bay (76.2). Detroit allowed 41 power-play goals away from home; only Nashville, Atlanta and Tampa Bay -- all non-playoff teams -- allowed more.

The Wings allowed opponents an average of four power plays a game during the regular season, 21st in the NHL. The one area in which they've improved during the postseason is in their ability to stay out of the box -- they're allowing opponents just 3.3 advantages per game. That's a significant decline from the regular season, and a huge drop from last year's playoffs, when Detroit allowed an average of just under 4.5 power-plays per game on the way to winning the Stanley Cup.

It's a good thing the Wings have been so disciplined, because their penalty-killers have been even worse in the playoffs than they were during the regular season.

Pittsburgh's two power-play goals it its Game 3 win were the 17th and 18th goals allowed by Detroit during this year's postseason -- in only 63 opportunities. That's already five more goals than the Wings gave up all last spring. Pittsburgh has converted 50 percent of its chances in the Final, but has gotten only six power plays in three games -- an average of two per contest.

Despite the numbers, the Wings' penalty-killers have an excellent reputation with opponents like Pittsburgh forward Bill Guerin.

"Personally, I find them an excellent penalty-killing team because they have players that anticipate the play so well, their sticks are excellent, they make little plays that, you know, get by the forecheckers," he said after Game 3. "I happen to think they are an excellent penalty-killing team."

Detroit's penalty-killers chipped in offensively last spring, but that hasn't been the case this year. The Wings have just one shorthanded goal this year after scoring six in 2008.

The problems on the PK are a big change from Detroit's four recent title-winning teams, all of whom excelled at penalty-killing. The 1997 champions had an 84.4 percent success rate, while the 1998 repeat winners were at 88.2. The 2002 Cup-winning Wings killed off 86.5 percent of opposition power plays, and last year's team had an 85.7 percent kill rate.

Should the Wings go on to win the Cup despite their penalty-killing problems, they'll be defying history. No Cup-winner has killed off less than 80 percent of opposition power plays during the regular season since the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins had a 79.9 percent success rate -- a figure that was less than one percentage point poorer than the League average of 80.8. The Wings are well below this season's average of 81.0.

Since Detroit kicked off its run of four titles in 12 years by winning in 1997, no team has won the Cup with a penalty-killing mark of less than 85 percent. The 2006 Carolina Hurricanes had the poorest PK among those teams -- and the 'Canes killed off 85.4 percent of opposing power plays.

So far, the Wings have survived their inability to kill penalties. But they know they're playing with fire against a team as talented as the Penguins -- and that the PK has to improve.

"We just have to do a better job staying in the lanes and also cutting some passing lanes away from them," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "They're great players, they're going to make some plays."

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