It can be tough to be nitpicky with the Penguins off to such a blazing start at 9-2. Luckily for fans and coaches, this is a team that prides itself on the small details that add up to larger victories, and right now the team would like to receive more production when they head to the man-advantage.
The power play lost a valuable asset with Sergei Gonchar missing the next four-to-six weeks with a broken left wrist. Long regarded as one of the league’s top power-play specialists, Gonchar’s absence deprives the unit of a heavy shot from the point and a guy capable of lugging the puck from behind his own cage to the attacking zone.
“You need zone time,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “You need shots and you need second chances. If you don’t get zone time and shots, you never get a second chance, you don’t get very many power-play goals. We continually try to drill that in, break teams down, know what to expect and make sure we’re working together.”
It’s not that the Penguins have struggled on the power play. They have a success rate of 18.4 percent, and there are more than a handful of teams converting less often than Pittsburgh, including fellow offensive powerhouses such as Washington, Boston and Ottawa.
It’s also tough to discount the Penguins 6-0 record when they record a power-play tally, compared to only 3-2 when they do not.
While they aren’t overly concerned with their production five-on-four, the Penguins would like to see more consistent results, something they believe can come from getting back to the basics.
We feel we can be better. Our execution level has to be a little higher than it has been. The effort is always there. At times, especially when you get a lot of power plays and you don’t get results, it can be frustrating. You have to do the best you can to fight that and be able to execute through that. - Bill Guerin
“We feel we can be better,” winger Bill Guerin said. “Our execution level has to be a little higher than it has been. The effort is always there. At times, especially when you get a lot of power plays and you don’t get results, it can be frustrating. You have to do the best you can to fight that and be able to execute through that.
“I think for us, less is more right now. In order for us to be successful we are really going to have to really simplify things, get shots from the points, take pucks to the net and things like that. We can create things off rebounds and broken plays.”
The Penguins once again worked on their power play during practice on Tuesday at Mellon Arena. They did not make any drastic changes, keeping the same group of Sidney Crosby
, Evgeni Malkin
and Guerin up front with Kris Letang
and Alex Goligoski on the points. It did appear they were focused on getting increased traffic in front as the young point men sent more shots towards the net than usual.
Guerin maintained his spot in the high slot area, drifting down towards the top of the crease when he could tell point shots were on the horizon. When he entered the house area, he found some familiar company – Crosby joining him there.
Crosby has always been a factor around the net, even more noticeably since the beginning of the 2009 playoffs, but on Tuesday you could tell there was extra focus on Crosby getting to the front prior to shots getting through. Often times he can usually be found just to the right of the netminder, but he was right in his grill in practice.
“I think when you look back and see most of Sidney’s goals, they are right around the blue paint,” Guerin continued. “That’s just where he goes. If the puck goes back to the point he is going to be going there. We like to have as many guys as we can around the net when the puck gets there. I think for Sidney that is just someplace he goes naturally.”
Sending both Guerin and Crosby to the front of the net will force teams to cover each body, leaving Letang, Goligoski and Malkin more room to unleash their canons. Malkin should also benefit during rebound opportunities as he will be the open guy in scrums around the net as teams box out Guerin and Crosby.
Another facet the Penguins would like to improve on is entering the attacking zone.
“Gaining the zone, we talk about timing and speed, and timing being the most important thing, you need to have a plan, everyone on the same page coming together,” Bylsma said. “When you have that puck support then you have a much better chance of entering. If you do have to dump it in you have a much better chance of recovery. Those are the principles that are mandatory.”
This is an area of the game where Gonchar excels so well. He knows just the right time to skate the puck through traffic and force the defender to come at him in such a way to create a passing situation which opens a lane for a teammate, yet if the other team stands up and holds the zone, Gonchar knows both the right time to dump the puck and the right spot to shoot to it to allow his teammates to gain puck retrieval.
Letang echoed his coach after practice by saying that improving in this facet relies on “coming with speed and making good decision”, meaning speed is what is going to open up either option for the puck carrier, and once a reaction to such speed is made by the defenders, either he or Goligoski must quickly make the decision to continue skating, pass it off or dump it in.
Both players have experience lugging the puck on the power play. Expect continued improvement as they continue gaining on-the-job training, especially with the team creating more and more chances for themselves every game.
“You’ve got to be ready (for the power play) every game,” Bylsma said. “If you lose that focus for a game and your power play doesn’t score, you feel like you lost the special-teams battle. That’s a big part of the game. That’s an everyday focus for us.”