The Pittsburgh Penguins' power play has been bad over the last few months. Very bad. Bad enough that in their last 67 chances, the Pens have scored a total of four goals. If you're a masochist and want to see that expressed mathematically, it's a cringe-inducing 5.9 percent. As Jimmy Rixner mentioned yesterday, the Penguins' power play is most definitely one of the team's primary concerns heading into the playoffs.
So, what's actually wrong? The answer isn't the absence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, though that's part of it. Even when the Penguins' twin towers were in the lineup, the team was still mediocre on the man advantage.
No, in order to find out what's wrong with the Penguins' power play now we need to turn the clock back a bit and remember what was wrong with the power play before.
Back in the post-Stanley-Cup era of the 1990's, when the Penguins ran a power play that could elicit raucous cheers at one moment and bring about jeers the next. Jeers that all came to the same resounding refrain. A refrain that the WDVE morning show immortalized with one iconic song:
As the lyrics begin:
Lemieux with the puck, he glides it into Francis...
...who gives it now to Nedved...
...who gives it back to Francis...
...he passes it to Zubov...
...who slides it around the boards...
...back around to Mario, so we must shout once more...
SHOOT THE PUCK! SHOOT THE PUCK!
And so on.
As with most effective satire, the song had a strong basis in reality. The Penguins' power play was very skilled. And they liked to pass, almost to the point of frustration.
For some perspective on how skilled they were at this time, if you only went by the four names mentioned in the song, you'd still have the Penguins boasting two Hall of Famers in Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis, and a man deserving serious consideration in Sergei Zubov. That doesn't even include the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Robert Lang, and, perhaps most appropriately, Alexei Kovalev, all of whom featured on the power play throughout the mid-to-late 90's.
Now, for all of that talent, the one obvious thing the Penguins lacked following the departures of Rick Tocchet and Kevin Stevens was a legitimate physical presence in front of the net. Skill? Bundles of it. But no real power forward in front to balance things out.
What that led to was a patient, probing attack where the Penguins would calmly move the puck around the offensive zone, hoping to find and exploit a weakness in the opposition's penalty kill. When things worked, and they usually did, the results could lead to beautiful combination plays and exquisite goals.
But when the holes weren't opening, the power play could be exceedingly frustrating to watch. Pass-pass-pass-pass. No urgency. No shots until the perfect look came along.
The problem is, the perfect look wasn't always there. So, unsurprisingly, the Penguins would fluctuate in effectiveness when up a man. Some days they could be lethally effective, others frustratingly inadequate. And, without fail, when they were ineffective, the cries of "Shoot the puck!" could be heard cascading from all directions within the Civic Arena.
Over time, the make-up of the Penguins' roster has changed significantly. Gone is the fluid offensive game and, in its place, there is now a much grittier, direct style of offense. Where power forwards were once a rarity in Pittsburgh, they are now in abundance. Where distributors were once the norm, they are now the rarity.
This change in priorities is also evident, most appropriately, on the power play. And when things aren't going well , as this year's 25th-ranked unit can attest to, James Neal's proposed solution seems typical of the team's analytical mindset:
"When things aren't going the right way, there's no reason why you don't just shoot the puck," he said. "Create battles in front, create screens. You have to put pucks there and, hopefully, good things will happen."
Shoot and pray, or something along those lines.
Watching the Penguins, you have a feeling that more members of the team would agree with this prescription than would oppose it. There's some wisdom to it, no doubt. But it is not the only solution. Direct play can work, but only if there's a dose of skill to compliment it.
Kovalev, a player who has seen each side of the Penguins' power play, has shared a slightly more nuanced view of the team's woes:
When we get in the zone we try to make a play right away. So, I think it's a lack of patience and a lack of plays we're making. If we'd be a little bit more patient and see what's open and at least move the puck around ... that's what the two minutes (are) for. To get into the zone and not (let) the other team get the puck ... You've gotta spend as much time as possible in the offensive zone to wear them down and get the goal.
And he's right. If a power play is too hurried and forcing the puck or moving it inefficiently, opposing defenders can find it remarkably simple to get into shooting lanes, block shots and intercept passes. Once penalty killers control of the puck, most of their battle is over.
They clear the puck and refresh with a line change. You tire by skating all the way to the other end to retrieve the puck as time ticks off the clock. Possession is a valuable thing, and if a team takes the wrong shot they can surrender the puck just as easily as it left their stick.
The old platitude of 'there's no such thing as a bad shot' is wrong. There most definitely is.
But, just as importantly, there's no need to pass up a good shot. Putting pucks on target and crashing the net can be an effective way to play. But, as the Penguins must learn, it can't be the only way.