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.

Oilers keep on rolling with win over Flyers

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Talent has never been the question in Edmonton, it was always a matter of systems and execution.

Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock each saw glimpses in recent years, but Dave Tippett might have unlocked the secret formula for the Oilers to have long-lasting success.

With six wins in the team’s first seven games, including a 6-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday Night Hockey, Edmonton is starting to believe that it has what it takes to become a serious contender in the Western Conference.

Jakub Voracek had two goals and an assist for Philadelphia while Carter Hart was pulled after allowing four goals on 14 shots in his first start near his hometown Sherwood Park, Alberta, as the Flyers concluded a three-game road trip through Western Canada where they went 0-2-1. Oskar Lindblom also scored.

Connor McDavid led the way offensively with five points (one goal and four assists), while Leon Draisaitl added two goals of his own as the Oilers bounced back after their first loss of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this week. Mikko Koskinen stopped 49 shots and picked up his third victory of the season.

The Oilers recorded four consecutive goals, including three in the second that broke the game wide open. McDavid or Draisaitl’s ability to break a game open has rarely been an issue, but slowing down the opposition has been problematic. But through seven games this season, the team has allowed only 17 goals thanks to improved goaltending and more importantly, better team defense.

Last season the Oilers allowed 271 goals, good for seventh worst throughout the NHL. It’s the sole reason Tippett was brought in, to limit the damage in their own end of the ice, and allow their superstars to flourish offensively without ignoring their defensive responsibility.

Tippett has opted to play McDavid and Draisaitl together for most of the season, which has always been a delicate situation. Should a coach load up to form a powerful top line, or spread the wealth throughout the lineup so a high-end player is on the ice for the majority of the game?

The Avalanche have had great success keeping Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen on the ice as a pairing almost exclusively and the Oilers have been trending in that direction.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal provide options in the middle of the lineup but neither have the top-end talent equivalent to McDavid and Draisaitl.

However, if the Oilers are able to have a prolific first line, combined with strong structure throughout the neutral zone and in front of their goaltender, they will quickly become an elite team that could be a force to be reckoned with.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

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.

McKenzie on Penguins injuries, Avs contracts … spider bites?

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When Alex Galchenyuk was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he likely breathed deep as he readied for a new coach, team, city, and system for the second straight season. Maybe there’s some fear about looking like a pale imitation of Phil Kessel, the other major part of that trade.

But did he factor in arachnophobia?

During a Wednesday appearance on NBCSN during the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche, Bob McKenzie reported that Galchenyuk has been dealing with what could be a groin injury (or otherwise a soft tissue issue), which many surmised. What people didn’t realize is that Galchenyuk took a detour on his road to recovery because of a spider bite.

McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk had a significant allergic reaction to the bite, which seems a lot less fun than being able to climb on walls, swing on webs, and sense danger before it’s coming. (Theory: Brad Marchand may have “spider sense.” Although we’d probably need to brand it differently. “Pest-pathy?”)

Anyway, McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk is back on that road to recovery, although his precise window of recovery is unclear.

Via McKenzie, Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust are essentially week-to-week still, as their windows seem to be two or three weeks. McKenzie reports that Evgeni Malkin‘s injury remains fuzzier.

Speaking of fuzziness, it sounds like the Colorado Avalanche are keeping things opaque when it comes to players on expiring contracts. So, we might need to wait-and-see with Andre Burakovsky and Nikita Zadorov.

That’s … understandable, especially with Burakovsky, who’s still making early impressions. Colorado might be wise to pick and choose with this stuff in the future, though. Could the Avalanche have signed Mikko Rantanen for less than a $9.25M AAV if they were more proactive? We can only speculate …

But hey, at least no one got bit by a spider.

*shudders*

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

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Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

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.

Blue Jackets’ Milano scores ridiculous between-the-legs goal vs. Stars

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Sidney Crosby scored a wonderful highlight reel goal despite hard-working defense, yet he has some competition for Wednesday’s best one-man effort.

Sonny Milano hasn’t always been able to justify being selected 16th overall in 2014 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, but there have been flashes of brilliance when he’s avoided landed in John Tortorella’s doghouse. The 23-year-old authored his best NHL effort so far against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, beating Esa Lindell, Roope Hintz, and Ben Bishop, making a great move and then finishing his chance with the sort of between-the-legs move you’d see in a shootout.

You’re just not supposed to be able to that at full speed in NHL action, particularly against quality players and Bishop, who finished second in Vezina voting in 2018-19.

That goal ended up standing as the game-winner as Columbus beat Dallas 3-2 on Wednesday, too.

So, which goal do you prefer: Milano’s (above this post’s headline) or Crosby’s from the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 OT win against the Colorado Avalanche?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.