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Penguins Revamp Top Power-Play Unit

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s true that Evgeni Malkin’s game-winning goal against the Panthers on Saturday night came when the Penguins were on the man-advantage. It’s also true that head coach Dan Bylsma spoke before the Florida game about how it’s not how many goals a power play scores, but when they get them.

With both of those things being said, the Penguins went about revamping both the personnel and the strategy on their top power-play unit during Monday’s practice at Mellon Arena as they look to improve upon their success rate, which has fallen to second-lowest in the NHL at 13.6 percent.

In an attempt to get more production from one of the few weak areas of their game, the Penguins moved Malkin from the goal line on the right-side boards to the left point in place of Alex Goligoski and next to Sergei Gonchar. Sidney Crosby kept his spot floating up and down the left side while Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke rotated with Bill Guerin down low.

“We did use some different sets today with people in different spots,” Bylsma said. “If you look back to when I came on Feb. 15 of last year, this is a set we have used before. Sometimes it’s personnel dictated, who’s in and out of the lineup.

“This is one where we think this will give us a different look with people in different spots. It will give us a chance to have a lot of people at the net.”

Even though the team hates to make excuses, injuries have played a key part in the struggle of the power play. Among the regular members of the top unit who have missed time are Gonchar (broken left wrist; 12 games), Malkin (shoulder strain; 7 games), Crosby (groin; 1 game), Kunitz (undisclosed; 13 games) and Goligoski (lower body; 10 games).

The Penguins are hoping that a different look to the way they attack opposing penalty kills will help the team end a tough stretch where they have converted only twice in 24 chances with the man-advantage over their last six games. Even though they have a 4-1-1 record in those games, the players know as each month passes on the calendar the power play determines the outcome of more and more games.

“The power play is such a huge part of the end of the season and in the playoffs so you need to figure out,” Kunitz said. “We are still doing things and getting good shots but it seems a little lackluster at times.”

Splitting Malkin and Crosby from the same side of the ice is the most drastic measure taken by the Penguins to cure the ills of their power play. With the two superstars occupying about 20 square feet of ice most of the year, it has made it somewhat easier for opposing teams to take away their time and space and limit passing options. Now that they are on opposite sides of the rink, that won’t be the case.

“Hopefully they’ll have to spread out a bit more,” Crosby said. “They can’t crowd one side. We’re both in pretty good shooting and playmaking positions from the area.

“You’ve got Gonch right in between us. It’s pretty hard for guys to cover. At least two of us may be covered, but one of us is going to be open, one of the three up top there.”

Playing the left point is not a foreign concept to Malkin. He spent a majority of the first half there last season when Gonchar was out with a dislocated shoulder and briefly spent time there earlier this year after Gonchar broke his left wrist.

“We have talked to Geno about that before so we knew that going into the situation,” Bylsma said. “I think right now Geno feels comfortable being in that spot and wants to be there. He likes what it offers him.

“(It gives Malkin) the passing ability through the seam to the slot and to Sid and also back to Gonchar for a one-timer.”

When Malkin and Gonchar are lining up for those one-timers, they should see more open lanes thanks to the potential double net-front presence Kunitz, Guerin and Cooke, a newcomer to the power play, will provide.

“A lot of our shots might have been getting fronted or getting blocked and then going down ice,” Kunitz said. “It wears a team out when you are going back all the time.”

Instead it will be the Penguins looking to wear down the other team’s penalty kill. Having a player with an abrasive edge like Cooke displays should result in the Penguins winning more puck battles below the goal line on rebounds and dump-ins.

Matt Cooke does a fairly good job of agitating anybody who is around him for a period of time,” Bylsma said. “That is a part of Matt’s strengths as a player. He is an in-your-face player. He goes to hard areas.

“His job in that role is to stand in front of the goalie out in front of the blue paint to provide a screen. He provides an ability to win loose-puck situations and then get back to the front of the net and tip pucks in.”

None of those aspects of the job description should pose a problem for Cooke, whose game-tying goal in the second period against the Montreal Canadiens last Thursday came when he deflected a Gonchar shot past Carey Price. Cooke looks forward to hopefully spearheading the team’s turnaround on the man-advantage.

“I don’t care if Sid and Geno are pegging me as much as they can,” Cooke joked. “It’s fun to be out there. … I’ll try to make the most of it and create as much distraction in front of the net to allow those guys to shoot the puck.”

That is going to be the key for this new power play to execute properly. When the puck rotates back to Malkin and Gonchar, or when Crosby comes to the top of the right circle, pucks have to get through traffic on net. From there, it will be up to the bodies down low to attack the rebounds and create second and third chances.

“We are probably going to be better at getting the puck back after those shots with this setup,” Gonchar said. “That is one of those things we are trying to achieve.”

The Penguins spent a significant portion of their practice Monday working on the power play. They hope that simplifying their strategy to a more workmanlike approach will get a team loaded with offensive talent back on track when they possess more skaters than their opponent.

“You’re going to struggle over the course of the year and if you can have a couple different looks that you can go back to I think you’re better for it,” Crosby said. “We’ll see how this goes. Hopefully it’s something that’s going to make us better.”

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