Penguins’ power play will always be high risk, high reward

PITTSBURGH — Whenever the Pittsburgh Penguins have had some sort of defensive breakdown, or danger zone turnover, or simply a “what the heck was that!?” kind of play with the puck this season coach Mike Sullivan has usually followed it up after the game by talking about the delicate balancing act he has to walk with his roster.

He talks about playmaking being a part of the team’s DNA and wanting to allow his players to use that to their advantage. And why wouldn’t he? When you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang on your roster you have an advantage over almost every other team in the league every single night.

You want them making plays.

But he also wants it happening in a controlled, measured way, where it’s not just a free-for-all where they start exchanging chances with other teams for 60 minutes because for as much fun as that would be for you and me to watch it is probably not something that is going to win on a consistent basis. Along with that, he talks about playing “the right way” and having the right “defensive conscious” and the right mindset.

Given the way the season has gone, with the Penguins going through equal stretches of dominance and sloppiness, he has had to hit these talking points a lot.

Monday’s 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils was another one of those nights, and his team’s power play unit was one of his focal points after an 0-for-4 night on the man-advantage that saw them give up yet another shorthanded goal to put the game out of reach in the second period.

The Penguins’ power play unit is one of the more complicated and sometimes maddening groups in the league because it has the potential to change a game … for both teams.

For the Penguins, it can serve as their deterrent because teams know once that unit hits the ice it can be lethal in its precision to pick an opponent apart and light up the scoreboard. You simply can not take penalties against them because there is a very good chance they will make you pay for it. They are scoring on more than 26 percent of their chances this season and have been the absolute best unit in the league in terms of success rate (23.7 percent) since Sullivan took over behind the bench in the middle of the 2015-16 season.

[Related: Penguins, Stars reverse last year’s Jamie Oleksiak trade]

That is the positive impact it can provide for the Penguins.

The negative impact is that can also be a ticking time bomb because of the chances they give up the other way, and this season that has burnt them one too many times.

The shorthanded goal they allowed on Monday night was already the league-leading 11th shorthanded goal they have allowed this season. Given the number of chances they give up that number could probably be significantly higher, and it has been a point of concern for Sullivan and the Penguins coaching staff all season.

Following Monday’s game he was asked if there ever comes a point where he thinks about making changes to the unit, whether it is personnel, system, or anything else he can do to stop the bleeding the way other way.

“I think we’re probably there,” said Sullivan, before hitting all of the talking points that he is probably tired of talking about this season.

“As a coach it’s always a fine line because you want to show faith and trust in your guys, and as I’ve said all along this year our first power play unit has been a difference-maker for this team for a long time. They are all really good players. But we have to take more responsibility for having a defensive conscious when guys are in trouble. And it doesn’t seem like we’re recognizing the danger, and we don’t take care of the puck. We’re careless with some of the decisions we make with the puck and it costs us. We’re trying to get out group to heed the lessons, and if we don’t heed the lessons then something needs to change.”

This is where the balancing act is going to become a challenge for the Penguins’ coaching staff.

Making changes that are too drastic and significant could needlessly weaken a group that has the potential to dominate, and for whatever flaws they have they still score a ton of goals. If the ultimate goal of your power play unit is to put the puck in the net, this group is still as good as it gets in the NHL and it has few peers on its level.

Part of the reason it is at that level is because of the talent it has, the plays they are capable of making, and just how … let’s say fearless they can be. It may border on reckless at times, but they definitely don’t live in their fears. Players like Crosby, Malkin, and Letang have the ability to make plays most other players in the league won’t (or can’t) even attempt.

When it all clicks, it makes magic. When it doesn’t … you get 11 shorthanded goals against in 49 games.

What probably stands out about that number is this same group, with the same players, only allowed three shorthanded goals all of last season. They only gave up seven the year before and only five the year before that. Only four teams in the league allowed fewer shorthanded goals than the Penguins’ 15 over that three-year stretch.

Now, they are on pace to give up more shorthanded goals this season than they did in the previous three years combined.

On the surface, you probably want to look at that and think something is different about this group or that they are suddenly being more careless.

But that is misleading because those same issues have always existed this group, they just haven’t always shown up in a way that is easily noticeable that you can point to on the stat sheet and say, “see … this is the problem! Fix this!”

Let’s just take a quick look at what the Penguins’ power play has given up over the past four seasons in terms of goals against, shots against, and scoring chances against. The number in parenthesis is where they rank in each category.

Despite being one of the best teams in the league at not allowing shorthanded goals the past three seasons they were still one of the worst (and more often than not) the absolute worst team in the league at giving up shots, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances with the man-advantage.

If anything, they have actually been a little bit better this season when it comes to preventing chances and have simply gotten worse goaltending in those spots.

Does that mean the problems didn’t exist before? Of course not.

One of our biggest failings in analyzing and watching hockey is that we only look at mistakes when they end up in the back of the net. If you turn the puck over at your own blue line and give up an odd-man rush or a breakaway and that player misses the net or gets stopped by your goalie does that mean the mistake didn’t happen? It happened, and just because it didn’t end up in the back of your net this time doesn’t it mean it won’t end up there next time.

As far as personnel changes. There is always the possibility that they could split up Crosby and Malkin, something that has happened on occasion over the past few years. But it doesn’t really work. The power play unit when Malkin is on the ice without Crosby gives up even more chances and shots the other way (which would be a problem), and neither unit scores as well or generates as many chances as when they are on the ice together.

Here are those numbers from 2015-16 through 2017-18.

Malkin definitely seems to be the common denominator in the chances and shots against numbers spiking, so putting him on his own unit doesn’t seem like the best approach for a power play that is trying to cut down the number of chances against. And you’re certainly not going to take him off the power play unit entirely because when he and Crosby are together they can still be so dangerous.

They are a couple of weeks away from getting Justin Schultz back and he has had success on the top unit in the past, so that is always the possibility.

Other than that, it comes down to X’s and O’s and trying to change the DNA of superstars that want to make plays. That is easier said than done, and if you happen to do it you run the risk of having more of a negative impact than a positive impact. You might give up less, but you also might score a lot less.

No matter how you look at it or analyze it this is just what the Penguins power play unit is going to do.

They are going to make skilled, risky plays that are sometimes going to work, and work at a rate that is better than almost any other team in the league.

That also carries a lot of risk, and that risk has always been there whether it has ended up in the back of their own net or not.

(Scoring chance, shot, and power play data via Natural Stat Trick)

More: PHT Power Rankings: 10 people that will impact the NHL playoff race

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Scheifele lights the lamp three times; Binnington earns second straight shutout

Mark Scheifele #55 of the Winnipeg Jets
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Three Stars

1) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Scheifele picked up his third NHL hat trick in the Jets’ 5-1 win against the Ottawa Senators.  The overlooked centerman completed the milestone with 1:33 remaining in the third period. Nick Paul kicked off the scoring to give the Senators an early advantage, but the Jets stormed back with five unanswered. Scheifele scored his first two goals late in the first period to help Winnipeg gain control of the game. He collected a loose puck near the top of the crease and buried a wrister to even the game, 1:11 after the equalizer, Scheifele redirected Neal Pionk’s shot from the point to give the Jets a lead they would never relinquish. With the win, Winnipeg claimed the top wild card spot in the Western Conference for the time being.

2) Ben Chiarot, Montreal Canadiens

Chiarot recorded his second two-goal game of the season in the Canadiens’ 4-3 overtime victory against the Washington Capitals. The defenseman had two pretty goals, including the overtime winner when his blistering one-timer sped through the legs of Braden Holtby to help the Canadiens end a five-game losing streak. Early in the third period, Chiarot fired a wrist shot from the high slot to give the Canadiens a one-goal advantage. With two more years after this season remaining on his contract at an average annual value of $3.5 million, Chiarot is unlikely to be moved in the coming days even though the playoffs are a long shot for the Canadiens.

3) Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs and Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues

Andersen rebounded from a tough performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this week and posted his second shutout of the season in Toronto’s 4-0 victory. It was Andersen’s first win in four starts since returning from a neck injury that sidelined him for four games. Binnington has not been tested frequently in the past two games, but two consecutive shutouts is an accomplishment despite the limited save totals. Mackenzie Blackwood’s 36 saves and Antti Raanta‘s 45 stops also deserve recognition on a solid night from a few goaltenders in the NHL.

Highlights of the Night

The between-the-legs craze continued when Nick Foligno fooled Brian Elliott with this beauty.

Chiarot is not known for his offense but hammered this one-time feed from Max Domi.

It didn’t take long for Gabriel Vilardi to score his first NHL goal.

Raanta was nearly unbeatable, but Ryan O'Reilly finished a precise pass from Brayden Schenn to lead the Blues past the Coyotes.

Kevin Hayes‘ game-winning goal wasn’t anything special, but his celebration following was something to see.

Pavel Zacha threaded a perfect stretch pass and then Jesper Bratt mesmerized Martin Jones with a series of dekes.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 0

New Jersey Devils 2, San Jose Sharks 1

Montreal Canadiens 4, Washington Capitals 3 (OT)

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (OT)

Winnipeg Jets 5, Ottawa Senators 1

St. Louis Blues 1, Arizona Coyotes 0

Vegas Golden Knights 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 3

Los Angeles Kings 5. Florida Panthers 4


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Ovechkin ends scoring drought in Capitals OT loss

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Alex Ovechkin inched closer to 700 career goals, but the Washington Capitals fell in overtime against the Montreal Canadiens Thursday, 4-3.

The Capitals captain recorded his 699th career goal to open the scoring early in the first period, but Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot scored twice, including the game-winner after regulation.

The Pittsburgh Penguins took over the top spot in the Metropolitan Division earlier this week, and the Capitals’ recent slump could cost them home-ice advantage in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Additionally, the Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets and trail the Capitals by five points for second place in the division.

Shea Weber and Brendan Gallagher also scored for the Canadiens as they snapped a five-game losing streak. Carey Price made 29 saves in his 25th win of the season.

Capitals forward Tom Wilson evened the score in the final minute of the third period to force overtime and help Washington earn at least one point. The power forward jammed a puck past Price to give Ovechkin another shot at 700 in the extra session.

However, less than a minute into the three-on-three portion, Chiarot hammered a feed from Max Domi through the legs of Braden Holtby. The defenseman scored his first of the evening early in the third period when he wired a wrist shot from the high slot to give Montreal a 3-2 lead.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 to break a five-game streak without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Price.

Weber knotted the game at 1-1 when he notched his 14th of the season late in the first period. The Canadiens captain was originally expected to miss 4-6 weeks due to an ankle injury but returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing only six games.

Ovechkin’s chase for 700 continues Saturday when the Capitals square off with the New Jersey Devils.

 

Ovechkin’s quest for 700:


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

WATCH LIVE: Ovechkin continues chase for 700 vs. Canadiens on NBCSN

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals celebrates
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington hosts Montreal in D.C. tonight in what will be the third and final meeting between the two clubs this season. All eyes will be on Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin as he continues his quest for 700 career goals.

Ovechkin is now goalless in five straight games after registering a hat trick against the Kings on Feb. 4. Of the seven members in the 700-goal club, five players took five games or longer to go from 698 to 700 career goals – Jaromir Jagr (5 games), Marcel Dionne, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner (6 games), and Brett Hull (12 games).

The Capitals have struggled in the midst of Ovechkin’s trek towards 700 goals. For the first time since mid-October, Washington no longer owns at least a share of the Metro Division lead as Pittsburgh now occupies the top spot.

Tuesday afternoon, the Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks for a 2020 second round pick (originally acquired from Colorado) and a conditional 2021 third round pick.

Montreal lost 4-3 at Detroit on Tuesday night after blowing a two-goal third period lead. The Habs led 3-1 entering the third and gave up three unanswered goals to pick up their fifth straight loss. To make matters worse, the Red Wings swept the Habs in the regular season (four games) for the first time in franchise history. Four of Detroit’s league-worst 15 wins this season have come against Montreal.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals
WHERE: Capital One Arena
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 20, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Capitals-Canadiens stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhilip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Jonathan DrouinNick SuzukiJoel Armia
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiIlya Kovalchuk
Paul ByronNate ThompsonNick Cousins

Ben ChiarotShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Xavier OuelletChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerRichard Panik
Travis BoydNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Brenden Dillon – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovNick Jensen
Michal KempnyRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

Joe Beninati and analysts Craig Laughlin and Alan May will have the call from Capital One Arena.

NHL teams get jump on deadline with flurry of early trades

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Tom Fitzgerald changed teams twice at the NHL trade deadline as a player and knows how it feels.

As interim general manager of the New Jersey Devils, he didn’t wait until deadline day to trade captain Andy Greene or forward Blake Coleman. Beating the buzzer by more than a week, Fitzgerald recalled his own rough experiences of getting dealt late.

”I wish I was traded a week and a half before so I could get adjusted a little bit quicker,” he said.

Greene and Coleman are among more than a half-dozen players who are already adjusting to a new team because of an early trading flurry. The deadline isn’t until Monday, but some major moves are already done thanks to a clear definition between buyers and sellers, contenders interested in the same possibilities, and reasonable prices around the league.

”Over (last) weekend, a lot of things started to pick up,” said Los Angeles Kings GM Rob Blake, who has already made three trades and could still be active. ”It seems after the All-Star break, a lot of teams start finding their direction on where they’re going, what’s available and prices.”

Los Angeles got things going by dealing goaltender Jack Campbell and versatile forward Kyle Clifford to Toronto in early February, and this week traded winger Tyler Toffoli to Vancouver and defenseman Alec Martinez to Vegas. On Tuesday, Pacific Division rival San Jose traded defenseman Brenden Dillon to Washington, and the Winnipeg Jets got blue liner Dylan DeMelo from Ottawa.

A couple of days earlier, the Devils traded Greene to the New York Islanders and Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning within hours of each other.

It isn’t taking much time to close the book on some big trades.

”I think there’s probably five or six teams talking to the same teams about the same players,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. ”And it sorts itself out for each team and then it happens quickly because then you’ve got to react to what happens with your other conversations.”

MacLellan didn’t rule out the Capitals making another move. But by getting Dillon early, he could be in the lineup for three extra games – which is significant given how tight the standings are.

It helps Dillon get acclimated, too. The 29-year-old who was considered the top pending free agent defenseman available didn’t have to sit around and wonder when San Jose would trade him.

”I’m sure you guys can read the papers just as much as we are, or social media,” Dillon said. ”It was definitely nice just from the mental side of things to get that done with.”

The NHL several years ago moved the trade deadline from March to February to give teams more time to benefit from acquiring players. Fitzgerald was traded in March each time and played 11 and 15 regular-season games, respectively, after getting moved.

Times have changed.

”A lot of teams like to get to things early,” Fitzgerald said. ”(Teams) want you to mesh with the team quicker rather than later. … A little bit longer runway is useful.”

DEADLINE DAY

All the early trades does not mean Monday might be quiet. The New York Rangers could wait until the last minute to trade forward Chris Kreider or one of their goaltenders. The Devils, Kings and Senators still have assets, too.

A few days after Montreal traded defenseman Marco Scandella to the St. Louis Blues, speculation continues to swirl around the Canadiens. Coach Claude Julien said, ”I don’t know that the noise is done,” and players involved in rumors are trying to block it out.

”Anything can happen, obviously,” winger Tomas Tatar said. ”I’m not too worried now. It’s just part of the business.”

WHO’S GONE

– Campbell and Clifford traded from Kings to Maple Leafs for Trevor Moore, 2020 third-round pick and conditional 2021 third-round pick

Jason Zucker traded from Wild to Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Calen Addison and conditional 2020 first-round pick

– Greene traded from Devils to Islanders for David Quenneville and 2021 second-round pick

– Coleman traded from Devils to Lightning for Nolan Foote and 2020 first-round pick

– Toffoli traded from Kings to Canucks for Tim Schaller, Tyler Madden, 2020 second-round pick and conditional 2022 fourth-round pick

– DeMelo traded from Senators to Jets for 2020 third-round pick

– Dillon traded from Sharks to Capitals for 2020 second-round pick and conditional 2021 third-round pick

– Scandella traded from Canadiens to Blues for 2020 second-round pick and conditional 2021 fourth-round pick

– Martinez traded from Kings to Golden Knights for 2020 second-round pick and 2021 second-round pick

WHO’S LEFT
– Rangers: F Chris Kreider, G Alexandar Georgiev, F Jesper Fast
– Kings: F Trevor Lewis
– Devils: F Wayne Simmonds, D Sami Vatanen, G Louis Domingue
– Senators: F Jean-Gabriel Pageau, F Vladislav Namestnikov
– Red Wings: F Andreas Athanasiou, D Mike Green, D Trevor Daley
– Canadiens: F Ilya Kovalchuk
– Sharks: F Patrick Marleau, F Joe Thornton
– Jets: D Dustin Byfuglien

WHO COULD STAY
– Rangers: G Henrik Lundqvist
– Devils: F Travis Zajac
– Senators: F Anthony Duclair
– Canadiens: F Tomas Tatar, D Jeff Petry
– Sabres: D Zach Bogosian
– Wild: D Jonas Brodin