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Series Becoming Battle of Special Teams

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets have played two games, seven-plus periods and 141:10 minutes of hockey thus far in their opening round Stanley Cup playoff matchup.

If there has been one defining staple of the series, which stands even at 1-1, it’s that special teams will be the deciding factor.

Pittsburgh and Columbus have combined for 14 goals. Of those 14 only five have been scored at even strength (Pittsburgh 3, Columbus 2).

A special teams battle would seem to favor the Penguins. They boasted the NHL’s No. 1-ranked power play (23.4 percent conversion) and No. 5 penalty kill (85 percent) during the 2013-14 regular season.

However, through the first two games that hasn’t been the case.

The Penguins’ power play has converted 3-of-11 opportunities, but have surrendered two shorthanded goals. The Blue Jackets’ power play has gone 3-for-10 while allowing one shorthanded goal.

Pittsburgh’s power play started hot in Game 1 after going 2-for-3. However, they converted only one of their eight tries in Game 2 and looked out of sync. The power-play had a few opportunities in the second period and overtime to seal the game, but failed to do so.

“I think just execution,” captain Sidney said of why the power play struggled in Game 2. “We’re not creating enough consistently. Either we’re not entering well or forcing things when we do get set up. That’s an area we definitely have to improve in.”

Forward Chris Kunitz said the team’s special teams play has also effected their success at even strength.

“We need to be better on special teams. We know that,” Kunitz said. “When we can get that straightened out we’re going to have a better feel for when we get to the game of playing 5-on-5 and keeping it even strength, rolling those shifts one after another. When we start taking penalties and start getting on the power play, guys are sitting on the bench and getting out of rhythm.”

The Blue Jackets like to play aggressively on the penalty kill. They force the play in the neutral zone and once in the defensive zone they apply a lot of pressure to the puck carrier. That strategy has its pluses and minuses.

With the mentality, Columbus was able to generate several scoring chances and has converted twice while down a man. But it also give the Penguins an opportunity to exploit.

“If they’re over pursuing somebody you can make one play, put pucks to the net and score goals,” Kunitz said. “When you do that they second-guess themselves and it really opens up the ice.”

One certainty is that the team that wins the special teams battle will win this series. The Penguins are want to make sure it’s them.

“We need to support each other a little better,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “We’ve left some guys out to dry. Cross-ice passes or rimming pucks around the boards where other guys have to go chase it. I think we can support each other a little better, especially coming into the zone where we can get it set up. Once we get it set up the options open up for us as far as getting pucks to the net and we have a lot of guys down low that can make stuff happen.”

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