There was absolutely no difference on Thursday night against the Washington Capitals at the Mellon Arena. The power play went 0-for-4, rarely giving the Capitals' defenders much to worry about. Meanwhile, the mighty firing squad from Washington made no mistakes on the man advantage, finding the net twice in as many opportunities.
While the Penguins have put together impressive performances from time to time, including going 4-for-7 on Tuesday night in a 6-4 victory over the Islanders, outings like that have been few and far between.
In fact, in the month of January, the Penguins are 5-0-0 when they score on the power play - but a lousy 0-6-0 when they fail to score.
But why is the unit so awful ? How can so many skilled players make it seem so difficult?
The first major concern has to be consistency, or total absense of it. Over the past two weeks, the Penguins have tried changing everything. Evgeni Malkin has been moved from the right half-wall to the left—then back to the right once again. While it has been fairly clear that Malkin prefers the right side, and he has for some time, the power play did have a small amount of success with No. 71 on the left.
Consistency has not been there when it comes to a net-front presence. While Sidney Crosby can be commonly seen swooping around near the net mouth looking for rebounds, nobody has been willing to stand in front of the cage. An entire horde of big bodies have been used down low over the past month, with none finding any success whatsoever.
Consistency has also not been present in the players mindset. Far too frequently, the Penguins have failed to score on a man advantage, then immediately changed their approach the next time out, no matter how good or bad it might have looked.
Against Washington, the first Penguin power play—a hold by defenseman Shaone Morrisonn at 8:48 in the first period—saw a lot of good things happen for the locals. Malkin was making a nuisance of himself by threatening from the right circle, but also being a "rover" that made frequent visits to the blue line and the center of the ice.
The constant movement by No. 71 and 87 gave the Capitals a ton to think about, therefore leading to several golden opportunities. But a goal was not meant to be.
Unfortunately the second time out, the Penguins reverted to the same old format. Too much passing, too much action along the walls, and not nearly enough movement. It's never a good thing when defensemen look like statues because they don't even have to move.
How to fix the problem? Patience is a virtue. In all other aspects of their game, the Penguins feel like if they play the way they are supposed to play and stick to it, good things will eventually happen. Why not apply the same philosophy to the power play instead of abandoning a good plan just because it doesn't work once?
Second, induce a little chaos. Having Malkin and Crosby constantly moving around is nothing a penalty kill can effectively plan for. When everybody has a set position, "OK, you're on the point, you're on the right wall, you're down low...," there are no secrets and it becomes a very easy set to prepare for.
Too often, star players want to make highlight reel plays. For the Penguins, this is a reoccurring theme that has continued for too long. Everyone wants to make the "perfect play" with a man advantage.
Tic-tac-toe goals. Beautiful one-timers. No-look backhand passes to an open man. Passes through traffic to a man coming in the back door. You name it, the Penguins have most likely tried it.
But why? Does it get you style points? Bonus points? As far as we all know, a goal counts the same, no matter how it goes into the net. The only player that currently seems to understand that concept is the captain.
Maybe once in a while beautiful plays do work out. But the majority of the time, they result in a turnover and having to play fetch. For opposing penalty killers, they normally set up in a four-man box in front of the goaltender, leaving players with a fair amount of space to shoot. But they don't, and it has cost them in the past.
Many times it's a passing clinic by the Penguins. Pass to Crosby, pass to Malkin, back to the point. With an almost reluctant nature to shoot the puck, penalty killers feel like they can take more chances, having a very good idea of what might be coming next.
Once again, the Penguins are near the top of the list for most shorthanded goals allowed.
This seems like an unsolvable mystery. It's not just this year, but every year. There is no "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality, and certainly nobody (yet) on the ice that can play the role of the gritty garbage man, like Tomas Holmstrom of the Red Wings. When you lack the attitude , it's also true you lack the results.
Possibly the best alternative would be to put Mike Rupp in front of the net. He has proven time and time again that he not only has the intimidating size at 6'5", 240 lbs, but he also possesses some excellent hands. Hopefully, with a legitimate distraction in front of the goal, defenders won't be so jumpy to intercept passes and go the other way.
Third, there are far too many times that the Penguins treat the advantage like a 5-on-5 situation.
Page One of Disco Dan Bylsma's playbook from the minute he began coaching has been the offensive forecheck. Get the puck in deep, make defenders chase, then wear them out with speed and physical play. So far, that formula has worked out pretty well. He's already won a Stanley Cup and is in position to secure home-ice in the playoffs again, at least for a round.
But the problem is that same formula is applied on the power play when it has no place being there.
That's exactly what defenders want you to do. Keeping the puck to the walls and at the blue line is a dream come true for penalty killers. They are the lowest percentage scoring areas in the attacking zone. Sure, maybe a goal will be scored every blue moon with a cannon shot from the point or a one-timer from the wall.
But the true scoring areas on the power play are in the middle and down low around the net.
You can watch hockey highlights on a nightly basis and see goals scored from those areas. Heck, the Penguins could have easily taken a page out of the Capitals' playbook in the loss, quite a number of the goals scored came around the net.
The sooner the players can get out of the 5-on-5 mindset, the sooner they can concentrate on playing a power play. Currently, the only difference is the personnel groupings on the ice. No, take that back. The No. 2 power play unit is the same as the "Sesame Street" line, or Staal-Kennedy-Cooke, normally the shut down defensive line.
How to do it? Watch the Chicago Blackhawks. Watch the Capitals. Watch anybody that has had success on the man advantage. They move the puck quickly and move it quickly to high scoring areas. And that does not mean idling along the walls, cycling the puck.
Finally, the Penguins need to be intelligent moving the puck. It sounds like such a simple thing to do, and if only it was.
There are two main parts to puck movement. First is forming up an attack when coming out of the defensive end. Second is moving the puck while established in the offensive zone. The Penguins have yet to master either of the concepts.
Facing an aggressive, high-pressure penalty kill, like Vancouver, Philadelphia, or the New York Islanders, Penguin defensemen have gotten bogged down in their own end quite a few times. Once the puck leaves the zone and Alex Goligoski or Sergei Gonchar head back to retrieve it, they play around behind the net, allowing precious seconds to evaporate off the clock.
Normally, if the penalty killers manage to clear the puck the first time, the Penguins have proven to have difficulty setting it up once again thanks to lackluster puck movement.
Giveaways in the offensive zone have also been a plague in Pittsburgh.
On a power play, you have five men to their four. It sounds elementary, but that automatically guarantees that someone, somewhere, will not be defended. The Penguins love to pass, but they don't always pass to the open man. If a player isn't open, you can't force him to be by passing to him.
Exhibit A, the first unit had close to 30 seconds of in-zone time against the Capitals. Terrific movement, terrific passing, and several great looks. But it was needlessly ended because they were not intelligent. Malkin forced a pass inside for Bill Guerin, who couldn't take the pass cleanly in traffic, allowing Washington to clear and relieve the pressure.
This is not a first, by any means.
The answer is simple, or so it would seem. Move with the puck, move the puck quickly, and move it to an open man. While it may not immediately create an open look or an opportunity for a quality shot, it moves defenders around and gets them out of position.
But there is no question. The Penguins need to make changes, both in mind and on the ice.
This certainly isn't the first time that the abysmal power play has effectively lost a game for the Black and Vegas Gold, and it surely won't be the last either if changes are not made.