Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist Returns Will Boost Struggling Penguins Power Play

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistDecember 12, 2014

Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) celebrates his goal against New York Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak (41) as Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy (2) and defenseman Thomas Hickey (14) battle with Penguins right wing Patric Hornqvist (72) and center Nick Spaling (13) in the net in the first period of an NHL hockey game at Nassau Coliseum, Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)
Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Penguins kicked off the 2014-15 season with a power play that enjoyed literally unprecedented success.

Check out these numbers from the first four games of the season:

DateOpponentPower-Play GoalsPower-Play Opportunities
October 9Anaheim Ducks14
October 11Toronto Maple Leafs35
October 16Dallas Stars24
October 18New York Islanders24

At 8-for-17, Pittsburgh enjoyed a stunning efficiency rating of just over 47 percent—more than double the rate of 23.4 percent that tied them for top spot in the NHL in 2013-14.

Two of the catalysts for the Penguins' early-season success with the man advantage were defenseman Kris Letang and new acquisition Patric Hornqvist. Letang plays more than any other Penguin on the power play, averaging three minutes and 40 seconds of ice time per game, according to Eleven of his 18 points this season have come with the man advantage, including four assists in those first four games.

Nov 26, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) chases after the puck against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-3 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeCla

Hornqvist has 25 points already this season, of which 11 have also come on the power play. He tallied a goal and four assists with the man advantage, as well as three even-strength goals, in those heady first four games.

Fast-forward to today: The Pittsburgh power play is suddenly ice cold. The Penguins have just one power-play goal in their last six games, dating back to November 28. Hornqvist has missed the last two games after suffering an injury against the Vancouver Canucks on December 4, while Letang last played on November 28 before missing five games with a groin injury.

Coincidence? Probably not. 

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Chris Kunitz's power-play presence has also been missed in recent games. The gritty winger had points with the man advantage and had been fourth on the team with an average of 3:22 of power-play time per game before being sidelined with a foot fracture at the end of November. 

Kunitz was originally projected to miss about two weeks with his injury, but there's no timetable yet for his return.

Though Christian Ehrhoff was lauded for his skills as a power-play quarterback when he signed as a free agent with the Penguins last summer, he hasn't had much success filling Letang's skates during his absence. Just one of Ehrhoff's nine points this year has come with the man advantage. He's averaging 1:43 of power-play ice time per game over the full season.

The power play should get a boost with both Letang and Hornqvist ready to return to the lineup. Both players practiced Thursday and are expected to play Friday against the Calgary Flames.

While the Flames have surprised with their strong start this season, they're coming into Pittsburgh riding their roughest stretch of the year. Calgary's on a three-game losing streak and will be playing the second game of a back-to-back after losing 4-3 in Buffalo on Thursday night.

The Flames are one of the weakest penalty-killing teams in the league, ranked 25th overall with a 76.7 percent success rate, but they've been much better of late, mostly by limiting opposition opportunities.

Calgary has been shorthanded just 12 times in the last eight games and has given up only a single power-play goal. Even with Letang and Hornqvist back in the lineup, the Penguins will need to work hard for chances to get their special teams scoring back on track.

Of course, the Penguins power play wouldn't pack the punch that it does without the team's two superstar centers. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby lead the Penguins with 15 power-play points each, which also groups them among the top players in the league. Mike Johnston likes to load up with his big guns on the man advantage—a strategy that has been effective when the proper supporting cast has been in place.

Crosby missed practice Thursday due to illness, which led to a different-look first unit at practice.

Sid was back on the ice Friday and is expected to play against the Flames, per Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Don't be surprised to see him back in the top group come game time.

Early in the season, the Penguins were on track to challenge the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens as the best power-play team of all time, aiming to beat a mark of 31.88 percent. 

Heading into Friday's contest, Pittsburgh's power play still leads the league, but the recent dry spell has dropped the overall success rate to 29.1 percent.

If the Penguins can goad a tired Flames team into a few undisciplined penalties, Letang and Hornqvist should be able to help kick the the power play back into gear.