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Breaking Down the Pens' Power Play

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins are only two games into the Mike Johnston era, but already one major factor in the team opening the season with a 2-0 mark has been the success of their power play.

The power play has been, well, powerful, converting 4-of-9 opportunities (44.4 percent). The man-advantage unit connected three times Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 5-2 victory at Air Canada Centre.

We’re going to take a look at why the Penguins man-advantage has been so impressive thus far, and what to expect for the rest of the season.

1. Personnel
The Pens’ first power-play unit features arguably the most talented group in the world. They have multi-time NHL MVPs and scoring champions in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Chris Kunitz scored a career-high 35 goals last season, including a team-best 13 on the power play. Defenseman Kris Letang was a finalist for best NHL blueliner and is one of the most gifted offensive defensemen in the league. Lastly, newcomer Patric Hornqvist is a former 30-goal scorer that has notched 20-plus goals in a season four times.

Other than talent, there is continuity. Four of those players (Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, Letang) have played together for several years, including working on the man-advantage together. So there is already a familiarity with habits and tendencies. That has certainly helped with the quick chemistry.

2. Breakout and Entries

The first priority of any power-play unit is getting entry into the zone. It may be the most crucial point. After all, how many power plays are wasted simply because a team couldn’t enter the zone and set up?

When the Penguins break out of their zone they’ve kept a forward – most times Hornqvist or Kunitz – positioned at the opponent’s blue line. This forces the opposing team to keep at least one defenseman back at his blue line to keep the Pens forward from receiving a pass and getting a breakaway. And that simple move opens up a lot of ice in the neutral zone. Pittsburgh has taken advantage of this open ice with speed and precision passing to gain entry into the zone.

(Watch the video below. The Pens have four players working in their own zone with Hornqvist waiting at the Toronto blue line. As the Pens break out of their zone with speed you can see they have the entire neutral zone open because the two Leafs defenders are backing off due to Hornqvist’s presence. Also, you’ll see that the two defenders are trying to keep a tight gap on the strong side [puck side], which leaves an open lane on the weak side. Kunitz is able to hit Crosby in stride to enter the zone. The defense continues to back off because of Crosby’s speed, while Hornqvist sets himself up nicely for a drop pass. Pittsburgh has been making plays like this to not only create scoring chances, but to just gain the zone as well.)

(In the video below, again four Pens do the work in their own zone while Hornqvist waits at the opposing blue line. The Leafs defense is in the middle of a change. As soon as the Pens gain control of the puck, Crosby sees Hornqvist has separation and hits him with a stretch pass that springs him on a breakaway.)

3. Setup

After gaining entry, the next item on the agenda is the setup. Pittsburgh is using a diamond setup (or a 1-3-1). Letang is the high man at the point. The middle row features Crosby, Hornqvist and Malkin. Crosby is on the right side, Hornqvist in the high slot and Malkin on the left side. The net-front presence is provided by Kunitz. You’ll always see Hornqvist and Kunitz around the net. And since Hornqvist is a right shot and Kunitz is a left shot, both Malkin and Crosby (on the outside) have options to get the puck to a player on his forehand in the middle.

(Although this is the second power-play unit, the same principles apply. You can see the team in a diamond formation with Christain Ehrhoff manning the top. Ehrhoff can funnel the puck to someone else or shoot it. In this instance he shoots.)

Once the team gets set up it’s all about puck and body movement. The Pens players move the puck quickly and reposition themselves often. This forces the opponents’ PKers to move as well and reposition to counter. With the PK unit constantly moving, they are not only tiring themselves, but also exposing new passing lanes for the Penguins to exploit.

4. Shoot and Crash

Once the power play is creating open lanes and scoring chances, it’s up to the players to get the puck on goal and crash the crease looking for rebounds. The first priority is to screen the goaltender on any shot from the perimeter. If the shot is stopped, the next move is to find a rebound. Crashing the crease is an area that the Pens have been particularly good in so far, as you can see in the next few video clips.

(In the below video the play starts with the Pens moving the puck well and as a result the Leafs players over pursue. That creates an open lane [albeit a small one] and gives Crosby the ability to squeeze a pass through their PK box. Malkin can’t handle the pass for a shot. But he regroups by settling the puck, retreating to the blue line and then skating towards the net. It looks like a simple shot and score, but it’s all made possible by Kunitz’s screen. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier is frantically trying to get his head around to locate the puck. Bernier looks to his right just as Malkin shoots to his left. And it doesn’t hurt that Malkin hit his target with pinpoint accuracy.)

(As Crosby carries the puck toward the goal line Kunitz sets up in front. Hornqvist floats down looking for the backdoor play. Crosby sees that the Leafs aren’t even touching Kunitz so he throws the puck in his direction. Kunitz re-directs the puck on net then follows up by shoving in his own rebound. Also watch how quickly Hornqvist gets to the net looking for any rebound chances. That is a crashing the net mentality.)

(The last goal has all of the elements talked about above. The Pens use puck movement to get the PKers out of position. The movement creates a passing lane for Crosby to get the puck to Letang at the near point. Kunitz and Hornqvist are positioned for the screen. The shot goes wide, but three Pens – Crosby, Kunitz and Hornqvist – are all at the crease looking for a rebound. And that crashing mentality had Crosby in the right place at the right time to finish the play.)

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