When it comes to the overtime shootout, it’s no longer a shoot down for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The team has embarked on a remarkable turnaround in the game’s newest wrinkle designed to produce a winner from a tied game.
First instituted last season, the Penguins struggled in the event, which is staged when teams end overtime in a tie. Both teams earn a point if they head to overtime, but an additional point is awarded to the shootout winner.
The Penguins only managed to triumph once in seven shootouts last season. History was repeating itself this season as the team went 1-5 in its first six shootouts.
However, something happened in the seventh shootout on Jan. 26 in Dallas. The Penguins won, 1-0, and the success hasn’t stopped. The team won seven-straight shootouts and nine of 10 for an overall record of 10-6.
“Everything is just sort of coming together,” said Penguins center and shootout ace Erik Christensen. “We’re getting good goaltending and getting at least two goals usually.”
The Penguins have needed only one goal in the shootout on several occasions thanks to the stellar play of goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Jocelyn Thibault. Fleury won six-straight shootouts and stopped 12-straight shootout attempts in the process. Thibault extended Penguins’ overall save streak to 14 in the shootout before he was scored upon March 6. Meanwhile, Fleury pushed his personal save streak to 14 before he gave up a shootout goal on March 8.
“Yeah it’s pretty cool,” Fleury said. “I don’t know what the difference is. We’ve worked on it in practice, for fun at times. For myself, [Penguins goaltending coach] Gilles [Meloche] tried to give me some hints about some mistakes I made at the beginning of the year and made me be more patient.
“Before, I used to go further out of my crease so I had to come back kind of fast and I was more rushed,” he continued. “Now, I just wait until the last second before I make a move. The guys are scoring goals, too, so I think that’s big.”
Christensen, who is by far the team’s most-accurate shootout participant, offers another reason for the team’s turnaround.
“It’s probably because Fleury is facing me all the time in practice and he’s getting lots of work,” Christensen said with a laugh. “I don’t know. Marc and Jocelyn have been great in shootouts. It started in Dallas. It helps when you only have to score one goal because Marc’s been stopping all three shots.”
The goalies give the shooters confidence and vice versa.
“When we go into the shootout now, I like it. Before, I used to hate it because we’d always lose,” Fleury said. “Now, I like it because we’ve been winning and I know the team can score some goals. I think if I can make one or two big saves, we can win.”
“One of the goalies said that when I get the first one, it takes the pressure off them and lets them relax a little bit, which was nice to hear,” he said. “I just try to have fun with it. It’s a privilege for me to be in the shootout at all. There are only three players who get to go and I take it as a privilege and try to have fun and enjoy the moment. It’s pretty cool to have a packed house like here in Pittsburgh with everyone on their feet watching you go against a goalie one-on-one for an extra point. It’s a cool experience.”
Christensen has been money in the bank in the shootouts. He’s converted 8 of 14 chances (57.1 percent) this year. He has made 9 of 15 shots (60 percent) for his career – far better than any Penguins player. Christensen, who always shoots first in the Penguins’ three-player rotation, has scored three shootout-winning goals.
“No, I don’t get nervous. I try to have fun with it. If you’re nervous, you’re not confident,” he said. “I like to think of myself as a confident person on the breakaway. I have something planned before I pick up the puck and there’s no turning around after that.
“I just look at how big the goalies are and how big their pads are and if they are most likely to go down,” he continued. “Sometimes I ask our goalies what they think I should do. I just sort of get a gut feeling of what feels good at the moment.”
Lately, Sidney Crosby has picked up his shootout performance as well. He has four shootout-deciding goals this season.
“It’s a big reason why we’ve been winning is because he has found his rhythm in the shootout,” Christensen said. “Sometimes, it takes a little time to find out works for you. He can score some amazing goals, but it’s a different situation when you’re going against a goalie one-on-one with no backcheckers. It’s even different than having a breakaway in the game. You can take your time and plan it out.
“He got a couple goals against [Roberto] Luongo [in the All-Star skills competition] and maybe he figured out some things. I hate saying that because he’s the greatest player in the world, so who am I to say he maybe figured something out? It’s just a different experience to be in the shootout. It’s still new for everyone.”
The overtime shootout is more than just a novelty. It is having a huge impact on the Eastern Conference playoff race. The 10 extra points the Penguins have earned from shootout wins are golden to the team.
“It’s pretty cool. It makes a difference,” Fleury said. “Those wins give us one more point every time, so it’s big for us.”
“That’s 10 points that we’ve gotten. Subtract those from our point total now and where would we be? Probably not in a playoff spot,” Christensen said. “Those points are so important and I think it’s a great idea for the league to bring the shootout in two years ago. The fans obviously enjoy it and it provides some more excitement.”