Coming into their series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Pittsburgh Penguins knew that special teams were going to be important. Names like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin might jump off the page more than Ryan Johansen and Jack Johnson, but the Blue Jackets were just as good as the Penguins during five-on-five play throughout the regular season.
Pittsburgh's five-on-five goals for/against ratio was at 1.05 at the end of the campaign, while Columbus was sitting at 1.06, a microscopic difference that suggested the gap between the Penguins and Blue Jackets might not be all that large—at least during even-strength play.
It appeared that Pittsburgh had the upper hand in the special teams battle. Finishing the regular season with the NHL's top power play and fifth-best penalty-killing unit, the Penguins were in a position to take control of the series by dominating with the extra man. They just needed to hold serve during five-on-five action and then do some damage while on the power play.
After the first two games of the series, it was clear that it wouldn't be quite so simple for the Penguins. They scored three power-play goals through Games 1 and 2, but also allowed two short-handed goals while giving up three power-play tallies to the Blue Jackets.
Forward Chris Kunitz spoke to gathered media following Game 2, and Sam Kasan of Pittsburgh's official website quoted the top-line forward, who had this to say about the team's struggles with the extra man:
We need to be better on special teams. We know that. When we can get that straightened out we're going to have a better feel for when we get to the game of playing 5-on-5 and keeping it even strength, rolling those shifts one after another. When we start taking penalties and start getting on the power play, guys are sitting on the bench and getting out of rhythm.
Among the 13 teams that have played only four games in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Penguins have received the highest number of power-play chances.
|Team||No. of PP Chances||Conversion Rate|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||20||25.0%|
|New York Rangers||20||15.0%|
|San Jose Sharks||17||23.5%|
The league-best power play has dissipated to some degree, and Pittsburgh is ninth in the NHL when it comes to scoring during five-on-four play in the playoffs. The chart also illustrates two other notable and concerning trends.
- Columbus has been better on the power play.
- Columbus is allowed to play over the line due to lack of success from Pittsburgh's power play.
The Penguins should be better with the extra man. They were during the regular season, but their flubs on the power play haven't been as costly as what's happened on the penalty kill. Columbus is outperforming its regular-season efficiency by nearly 6 percent.
During the regular season, R.J. Umberger led the Blue Jackets in power-play points with eight. Only two other players on the team managed five or more. The Penguins had three players with 10 or more points on the power play.
On paper, Pittsburgh shouldn't be struggling to score goals on the extra man, and it shouldn't be allowing the Blue Jackets to score on one out of every four chances, but it is. With the series down to a best-of-three now, the Penguins need to find a way to start coming out on top in the special teams battle.
The best way for them to do that is by not beating themselves. We've seen players checking up to the difficult and fancy play instead of checking down and simplifying all series long, and the need to just get pucks on Sergei Bobrovsky is paramount. The Blue Jackets have been incredibly aggressive during their penalty kills.
They've pursued the puck carrier to the perimeter and refuse to give the Penguins any space to make slick passes. Instead of forcing the play, Pittsburgh needs to spend a few power plays just slinging pucks at the net through traffic. If the Penguins start running more of a shooting power play instead of the passive one we see now, then they will force the Blue Jackets to adjust accordingly.
With only three contests remaining in this series at the most, the Penguins are running out of time to make little adjustments. The most surefire way to win the series is to get back to the basics on special teams. All other things equal during five-on-five play, it's Pittsburgh's best chance to avoid a disastrous upset and subsequent head rolling that would surely come following a first-round exit.