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Pens' Shootout Mentality

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
Don’t be fooled by Chris Kunitz’s mustache.

He may be sporting the upper-lip hair since he lost the Penguins’ last “Mustache Boy” shootout on March 1, where the last Penguin to be held scoreless in the team shootout when the calendar flips has to grow a mustache for the rest of that month.

But he’s certainly found his form since then, as he netted the game-deciding shootout tally on Thursday in Philadelphia to lift Pittsburgh over the Flyers, 2-1.

“I’m going to blame (the mustache) on my first practice back after almost a month,” Kunitz said with a laugh. “I just wasn’t quite up to speed.”

James Neal – who scored two game-deciding goals last week in wins over Detroit on Tuesday and New Jersey on Friday – and Kunitz have helped the Penguins garner the crucial extra point in their last three games, all of which have extended to shootouts.

“It’s something (where) we all like to go out there and all like to capitalize in the situation,” Kunitz said. “You want to rise to the occasion when you go out there.”

WATCH: James Neal Beats Devils' Martin Brodeur In Shootout

The Penguins have earned an impressive 8-3 record in the shootout thus far this season, with their eight wins ranked second (tied) in the league.

It’s a situation that head coach Dan Bylsma has routinely implemented into his practices, which helps both his shooters and goaltenders alike.

“I think it’s great,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “We do a lot of shootouts. We have a lot of good players with good hands. So it’s a good challenge, a good practice and I think that’s what helps me out the most.”

It also gives the shooters an opportunity to finesse the move that they’re most comfortable with in any situation. But while the Penguins’ shooters generally have a go-to move in their artillery, much of what they ultimately decide to do when they’re bearing down is a read-and-react scenario.

“Everyone has maybe something in their mind that they want to do on the way down,” Kunitz said. “And then if the goalie reacts or moves early, then you change your mind.”

Neal and Kris Letang both said while they don’t want to overthink the situation, they do ask teammates who may have played on the same team as an opposing goaltender for advice.

WATCH: Chris Kunitz Beats Flyers' Sergei Bobrovsky In Shootout

“(Mike Rupp) last night told me, ‘(Martin Brodeur) might pokecheck, he’s pretty cool with his stick,’” Letang said. “So you just (try to) be aware of that.”

Fleury does the same when it comes to the opposing team’s shooters.

“I always try to ask the players a little bit that have played with them, or just kind of go with what they like to do,” he said of his shootout preparation.

Part of the Penguins’ success in the shootout also stems from the order of players Bylsma goes with. He almost always goes with defenseman Letang as his first shooter, while Alex Kovalev has been going first or second depending on when Letang shoots.  

While Neal prefers to shoot third so he can “kind of see what the goalie’s tendencies are on the first two shooters,” Letang enjoys going first because there’s actually less pressure on him in that scenario.

“You don’t really have pressure because the other team didn’t score and stuff like that,” Letang said. “Once you get third and you have to score to keep it going, that’s where you get a little nervous. Overall I think I’m really comfortable going out there and trying to do something (as the first shooter).”

While Letang hasn’t scored in seven-straight shootout attempts – the longest drought of his career – he is 14-for-37 overall and the Penguins are 11-3 when he finds the back of the net.

WATCH: James Neal Beats Red Wings' Joey MacDonald In Shootout

Kris Letang hasn’t really scored this year as much as we’d like to see him to, but his last three shootout moves have been outstanding,” Bylsma said. “He just hasn’t been able to find that cage. ... He’s outstanding at it. So he’s going to be in there, and ‘Kovy’ is a guy who’s got an unbelievable talent for that as well.”

The Penguins prepare as much as possible for shootout situations, utilizing video and highlight reels before facing opponents.

But in the end, all the Penguins’ shooters and goalie can do is what they’re capable of and hope for the best.

“You just try to make sure you can excel at it when it’s your try,” Kunitz said. “You want to go out with confidence and make your best (shot).”
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