COMMENTARY | In three full seasons under head coach Dan Bylsma, the Pittsburgh Penguins have never had a penalty killing group that finished the year outside of the NHL's top-ten units.
This season, they'll be lucky to escape the company of the NHL's ten worst.
As the playoffs approach and goal totals recede, special teams take on ever-increasing importance. And one-half of Pittsburgh's special teams is currently producing the kind of effort that eliminates an otherwise good team from the postseason field.
Say, in six games in the first round against a division rival, for example.
It was a horrendous PK unit that helped to bounce the Pens from the playoffs in six games last season, as the Philadelphia Flyers scored 12 power play goals in 23 man-advantage opportunities in the cross-state Quarterfinals series.
The unit never recovered from that playoff meltdown. Thus far, the Penguins rank 25th in the NHL in penalty killing effectiveness, stopping just 78.9 percent of opponent chances against.
Only five NHL clubs have a worse per-chance percentage, and just three have allowed more total power play goals than the Penguins. Of those teams to rank worse than the Pens, only the Washington Capitals (28th PPG allowed, 29th PK percentage) currently sit in playoff position.
The struggling special teams work is a contrast to recent seasons, but not to recent playoff years.
In each playoff season since 2010, the Penguins have seen their penalty kill take a precipitous tumble from its regular season version.
The numbers below compare the team's regular season PK success versus its postseason PK success, expressed in percentages.
2010 RS/PS Penalty Kill: 84.1 / 72.1
2011 RS/PS Penalty Kill: 86.1 / 70.4
2012 RS/PS Penalty Kill: 87.7 / 47.8
From 2010-2012, the Penguins increased their penalty kill percentage in each successive season. Their 2011 unit ranked first overall in the NHL before allowing the Tampa Bay Lightning to score on nearly 30 percent of their chances in the first round of the postseason.
The 2012 Penguins produced an 87.7 percent kill that was the best full-season percentage in franchise history. They followed that by allowing the Flyers to score on more than half -- half -- of their 23 power play opportunities in six playoff games.
In the last three years, Pittsburgh's penalty kill was an average of 22 percent worse than its regular season squad.
That is unsustainable.
When the Penguins went on a trading binge ahead of this year's NHL trade deadline, GM Ray Shero and his team were actively seeking to address the areas of weakness that bounced them in the first round of last year's playoffs.
In most areas of the game, so far, so good. The Pens are 4-1-0 since the trade deadline and 19-2-0 since the beginning of March. However, even the team's veteran acquisitions won't be able to plug the hole at the bottom of the club's sinking penalty killing unit.
This season, the Pens have allowed 31 power play goals. Their 25th-ranked PK is a huge drag on their 9th-ranked total defense. Nearly one-third of their 102 goals allowed in 2013 have been surrendered while shorthanded.
The Penguins have the tools to go deep into the postseason. Health, as always, is the first obstacle standing in the way of a run to the finals. But if there is any one thing that can stifle such a run that is within their control, it's the penalty kill.
And it's a problem that's hardly new.
James Conley covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and is an Editor at SB Nation's Pensburgh. He owns the Pittsburgh sports blog Slew Footers and has attended Penguins home games with credentials.
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