The Pittsburgh Penguins' power play unit has been god-awful for the better part of two straight seasons.
In each regular season since the Pens won it all in 2009, the unit has finished outside the top half of the league in man-advantage conversion.
A year ago, their 25th overall ranking turned into a 1-for-33 postseason performance that almost certainly kept the Penguins from finishing off their 3-1 series lead over Tampa Bay.
Finally, signs point to improvement.
Matt Cooke and James Neal scored power play markers for the Pens in their opening game against the Vancouver Canucks. The special teams battle proved vital (Cooke also scored shorthanded), as each of Pittsburgh's goals came during some form of special teams play.
On the night, the Pens went 2-for-3 on the man-advantage. Their lone missed chance was an abbreviated power play coming on the back end of four-on-four time.
It wasn't just that the Penguins scored, but how.
Zone entries were useful. Puck possession was solid. Movement was constant; shots were on-target, and goals were the blessed result.
Even without power play specialist Sidney Crosby to help anchor the unit, early returns of the new-look unit are a far cry from the group that couldn't gain the blue line a year ago.
The biggest contributor is a newfound commitment to getting the puck below the goal line, something the Pens did not or could not do last year and the year before.
Neal's opening goal came on a shot taken below the goal line. Roberto Luongo cheated himself off the post enough to open the five hole, and Neal managed to bank one in off the inside of Luongo's leg pad.
A flukey goal to be sure, but the method was right—get the puck to the net.
Cooke's marker came in similar fashion. Pascal Dupuis held the puck below the goal line, waited for Cooke to charge the net and delivered a pass to the tape. Cooke finished the play nicely with a perfectly-placed rising snapshot.
It was the sort of play that is indicative of an improved approach. Cooke and Dupuis can put the puck in the net, but neither is a premier scorer. The play relied less on talent, though, than on working the puck low and bringing the play to the front of the net.
Cooke and Neal both showed that getting the puck on net is key, but there was more to the goals than simply shooting from all angles.
To begin, Pittsburgh's zone entry was markedly improved. Having a healthy Evgeni Malkin to carry the puck in and feed the open man doesn't hurt, and that singular ability to drive the blue line was sorely missed in the last half of last season.
Also notable was the movement of all players around the offensive zone. At one point, the Penguins had four men along one wall with the fifth in front of the net. It wasn't intentional and didn't last, but it led to a scoring chance nonetheless.
It was a far cry from the unit that looked like bubble hockey for two seasons—capable of skating forwards, backwards and spinning in circles, with the same shooting accuracy to boot.
Evgeni Malkin's return, helpful though he is, is not the silver bullet reason for the group's early success. The unit showed a number of things they didn't in years past, making the revamped man-advantage a collection of small, vital improvements.
For one game at least, the unit is a strength instead of a weakness (and converted on nearly 40 percent of chances in six preseason games, for reference). With Sidney Crosby set to return at some point, the top group of Malkin, Neal, Steve Sullivan, Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz only stands to improve.
By the time he returns, the unit will hopefully have continued its renaissance.
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