Licensed to Kill: Pittsburgh Penguins Ride Penalty Killing to Series Win

Jeffery StonerCorrespondent IApril 26, 2009

PITTSBURGH - APRIL 15:  Darroll Powe #36 of the Philadelphia Flyers is upended after Rob Scuderi #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins hip checked him during the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Game One at Mellon Arena on April 15, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Going into the series against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Penguins were supposed to be the better five-on-five team. 

They were supposed to have the better goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury.  If the Penguins got into trouble, it was going to be against the Flyers’ outstanding special teams.

The Penguins powerplay has struggled throughout the year, and there was no reason to expect any improvement.  The Flyers led the National Hockey League in shorthanded goals during the regular season, and with balanced scoring throughout the year, were a very capable unit with a man advantage. 

It was thought that if the Penguins could control the special teams, they would sail into the second round.

As it turned out, the Pittsburgh “advantages” were not the difference in the series.  Fleury stole game four, and was very solid throughout the series.  But did he really outplay Flyer goaltender Martin Biron by the margin expected? 

Biron was solid in the first two games in Pittsburgh, despite losing both games.  He outplayed Fleury in game three in Philadelphia, as almost all of the Flyers outplayed almost all of the Penguins.

Biron had the show stolen from him in game four, but only gave up two goals on 25 shots. 

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Game Five in the City of Three Rivers was Biron’s best, as he pitched a shutout to extend the series.  Although he was less than spectacular in the series clincher, it would be difficult for Philadelphia fans to blame the series on No. 43.

He didn’t quite match the play of Fleury, but it was close enough that most the City of Brotherly Love would have accepted it without a second thought going into the series.

In addition to the fairly even goaltending, the Penguins failed to capitalize on five-on-five play throughout the series. 

Excluding the empty net and four-on-four situations, the Flyers actually outscored the Penguins 10-9 at even strength.  Throughout the series, neither team really controlled the puck or generated better chances any better than the other when the penalty boxes were empty.

So how it exactly did Pittsburgh advance?  It certainly wasn’t the dismal powerplay, which after a promising start only converted four of 32 opportunities in the series (including a dreadful 1-15 at Philadelphia), and surrendered a short-handed goal. 

The last goal the Penguins scored with a man advantage was in Game Three, after the game was basically decided.

The advancement was due to a different rotation of four players, but with similar results each time, the unsung heroes of the penalty kill team.

The Flyers converted only five of 32 attempts, but even that doesn’t tell the whole story.  Every time in the series the Flyers really needed a conversion, they were either stoned by Fleury or spent time chasing the puck the length of the ice. 

It’s said that the best penalty killer has to be the goaltender, and while Marc-Andre Fleury was exceptional without the full compliment of Penguins on the ice, he got plenty of help from those remaining on the frozen surface.

Notably, the forwards Jordan Staal, Pascal Dupuis, and Craig Adams did an exceptional job of taking away passing lanes from the Flyer point men, and winning face-offs to prevent opportunities. 

Staal and Dupuis had been solid on the penalty kill all year, but the addition of Adams to the playoff roster was an important upgrade. 

Adams was a trade deadline acquisition, but was claimed from Chicago on waivers rather than through a trade.  He spent much of the regular season scratched in favor of fighter Eric Godard. 

However, without the pressing need for a fighter once the best-of-sevens started, Adams was put onto a fairly effective fourth line, and into penalty killing action.

Next to Fleury, Rob Scuderi built his case for a more attractive new contract in the off-season, continuing a very solid regular season.  Scuderi led the Penguins with a plus 23 rating, and 164 blocked shots. 

Solid but unspectacular, Scuderi was seemingly always in perfect position, even when Fleury was not.   When there was a scramble associated with a loose puck on or near the blue paint, it was usually Scuderi’s stick to guide the puck out of harm’s way.

He also matched is regular season total for goals with one, but no one without the last name of Scuderi is likely to remember that.  (Everyone who is named Scuderi might also point out that he leads the NHL is shooting percentage with his one for one effort.)

Perhaps most important to the penalty killing efforts, was interim head coach Dan Bylsma’s revision of the philosophy of how to play a man down. 

Unlike former coach Michel Therrien, Bylsma emphasized aggressiveness on the kill.  This meant putting pressure on the puck carrier across the line and maintaining it through most of the set. 

Such aggressiveness is often subject to not having enough support near the net, but with fundamentally sound players like Scuderi around, it was less of a concern.

So as Pittsburgh gets ready for a still unknown opponent, you can anticipate everyone analyzing the Penguins goaltending, the strong third line, and of course the two superstar centers. 

However, what wasn’t discussed before this series might also be the key to the next one.  Although Pittsburgh fans might not hear much about this group, this is a fan base that always appreciates effort, toughness, and success. 

You can bet these efforts have not gone unnoticed, even if they have gone unspoken.

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