The Pittsburgh Penguins have been among the NHL's leaders in power-play efficiency over the last three regular seasons. With a 25.4 percent conversion rate, the Penguins have the best power play in the league as players head to Sochi to take part in the Winter Olympics.
Pittsburgh clicked about as often during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, scoring 24.7 percent of the time across 48 games, and it had the fifth-best power play in 2011-2012 at 19.7 percent. Despite this clear capability with the extra man, the Penguins have come up short in four consecutive playoff runs.
Could sagging power-play numbers be the culprit?
Looking back at the disappointing 15-game postseason run that saw the Penguins swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final last year, the power play doesn't seem to be an issue on the surface. The Penguins maintained an outstanding 21.3 percent conversion rate on the power play during the postseason, which is right in line with how they'd been performing all year.
This percentage doesn't paint a complete picture though. While the Penguins managed to torch the New York Islanders and the Ottawa Senators frequently while skating with an extra man, they hit a wall against the Bruins.
Not being able to put the puck in the net with 15 power-play chances across four games seems very un-Penguin like, and that lack of finish while playing five-on-four allowed the Bruins to utilize their rough-and-tumble style of play without suffering any consequences.
Despite a great power play overall, when the Penguins needed to capitalize the most they just couldn't find a way to do so. Game 3 was a heartbreaking, double-overtime loss, and that 0-for-6 looks bold and foreboding in the scheme of things.
Is it the power play that has been letting the Penguins down since the 2009 Stanley Cup victory then? Does this mark a trend of a PP unit that goes ghost during the most crucial time of year?
In 2011-12, Pittsburgh took part in a track meet of a series with the Philadelphia Flyers. The two teams combined for a ridiculous 56 goals in six games, and that lack of defense allowed the Penguins to score 31 percent of the time on the power play.
Getting blown out in Game 2 and Game 3 clearly had more to do with the Penguins heading home early than a shaky power play, but a leaky penalty kill didn't help matters at all.
After carrying an 87.7 percent PK rate during the 2011-12 regular season, the third-best unit in the NHL collapsed against the Flyers—the Penguins bowed out of the tourney with an atrocious 47.8 percent kill rate. The power play wasn't to blame for the loss against Philadelphia, but the penalty kill played a large role in another disappointing outing for the Penguins.
From a raw output standpoint, Pittsburgh's power play has actually remained relatively static when transitioning from the regular season to the postseason.
The same cannot be said for the penalty kill.
The 2012-13 playoffs marked the first time since the 2008-09 Stanley Cup run where Pittsburgh's PK actually improved during the postseason instead of getting worse.
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The key to Pittsburgh's special teams battle during the playoffs doesn't have anything to do with the power play. Aside from the 2010-11 playoffs, which saw the team score on 2.9 percent of its chances through seven games, the Penguins haven't seen their postseason playoff proficiency dip below 20 percent since last winning the Stanley Cup.
Where the Penguins seem to struggle during the postseason is on the penalty kill.
Despite having a strong PK group that has only finished outside of the top 10 once during the regular season over the last half decade, Pittsburgh seems to consistently melt down in the playoffs when skating down a man.
From 2009 to 2012, its PK was either dead last during the postseason or next to last.
If there's a trend that head coach Dan Bylsma needs to concern himself with bucking once the Winter Games are over, it's this one. Pittsburgh is in need of some scoring depth and perhaps even a top-line winger since Pascal Dupuis is out.
It could be argued that the Penguins need to supplement their penalty kill more than anything as the playoffs loom, however. A penalty-killing unit that cannot seem to play well during a best-of-seven series is almost certainly a kiss of death while a fourth line that won't score any goals is not.