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.

Scroll Down For:

    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today
    0 Comments

    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

    Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

    buffalo sabres
    Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

    washington capitals
    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
    0 Comments

    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.