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Special Teams Making the Difference

by Ashley Vesci / Pittsburgh Penguins

After their 5-0 defeat of the New York Rangers in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, the Penguins have taken a 3-1 lead in the teams’ First Round matchup.

Three of Pittsburgh’s goals that night came on the man-advantage, which has been red-hot all series and is a big reason the Pens have gotten to where they are.

“When those guys get on the ice together, they’re really talented guys,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “When they play the right way, they take what the game gives them. I think they’re a hard group to stop. There’s a lot of instinctive play, and our power play I thought made great decisions with the puck.

“Their shot selection and when to put it at the net was really good. We had a net presence when we were shooting the puck. All of the details of the power play that we talk about on a daily basis were evident when they were out there.”

The guy firing the puck at the cage the most was Evgeni Malkin, who found the back of the net twice and collected an assist on the man-advantage.

“He can make things happen from nothing and he scored two big goals for us,” Patric Hornqvist said.

After missing the last 15 games of the regular season and Game 1 of the series with an upper-body injury, Malkin returned to the lineup in Game 2. Overall, in the three games he’s been back, Malkin has earned six points (2G-4A) – five out of them coming on the power play.

“Geno’s gotten better with each game that he’s played,” Sullivan said. “He’s going to help us win. He’s a dynamic player, as you saw (Thursday).”

With Malkin back, the Pens have stacked their first power-play unit with four forwards – him, Hornqvist, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby – along with defenseman Kris Letang.

“We have good players, and we work in practice to do the right things,” Malkin explained. “Shoot the puck, and ‘Horny’ stays in front always crashing the puck or screening the goalie.”

Hornqvist’s ability around the crease has proven extremely profitable for the Penguins. Knowing that they can always count on him to be there wreaking havoc is invaluable for the guys surrounding him.

“It’s a tough area to go to, the front of the net,” Crosby explained. “There’s going to be loose pucks there, there’s going to be bodies, and I think he just does a really good job of competing around there. Either getting his stick on pucks or creating space for other guys.”

While the Pens capitalized on four of 13 power plays in the first three games, they weren’t completely satisfied with their effort there – especially considering they gave up a shorthanded goal in Game 3. However, in Game 4 they felt they hit their stride.

“I think if you look at the first few games, we forced plays,” Letang explained. “As of the last two games, we’ve been playing a little bit more patient. We move the puck around, and we took some good shots on net with traffic. So I think we simplified things using what we have.”

THE UNSUNG HEROES

Just as the Pens’ power play has recently seen success, so has their penalty kill. In the regular season, the Pens finished fifth in the league with an 84.4-percent shorthanded success rate.

So far in the postseason, they have been near perfect – killing off 15 out of 16 penalties in the first four games of the series.

“Our penalty kill has consistently been one of the strengths of our team all year long,” Sullivan said. “Those guys, they quietly go about their business there. They’re on the same page. They make good reads. They’re willing to block shots. They do a lot of the little things that don’t necessarily show up on the scoresheet or are difficult to quantify. But that’s what makes the penalty kill as good as it is.”

Although they may not get much credit on the scoresheet, that’s not Pittsburgh’s penalty killers are concerned about.

“I think we’ve been aggressive,” Carl Hagelin said. “I’ve said before, we don’t think about it too much. We just want to go out there and execute. Everyone’s doing their job, and that’s why we’re out there. We’re out there to kill penalties, and we have to do our job.”

The Pens have hardly allowed the Rangers any time or space to work with on the power play, and rookie Tom Kuhnhackl even posted a shorthanded goal in Game 1.

“I think we’ve dictated a lot,” said Nick Bonino, who has been crucial on special teams as he’s on the second power-play unit and is a top penalty killer. “I think we’ve got them into areas that we want them to go into and forced them to make plays they don’t want to make.

"When we’re getting it out so often, making them go up and down the ice, it tires them out. It doesn’t allow them to battle for the puck as hard as they want to, and our goalie’s been great on the kill whoever it’s been.”

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