The Pittsburgh Penguins lost their opening-round playoff series to the Tampa Bay Lightning because several creaky floorboards happened to give way underneath them at the worst possible time. Poor scoring and a laughably bad power play haunted the Penguins since the losses of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in January. That these areas failed the Penguins in the playoffs is no surprise.
But one area the Penguins didn't expect to falter was the penalty kill.
No team killed penalties at a higher rate than the Penguins during the regular season. Even though they often put themselves in difficult situations, spending the second most time down a man in the league, the Penguins usually could rely on their penalty kill to bail them out.
But that penalty-killing prowess didn't quite translate to the playoffs. The Penguins finished at the bottom of the league penalty kill percentage, at 70.4 percent, during the first round of the playoffs. Coupled with their 1-for-35 power play, is there any wonder that the Penguins are now on the sidelines?
So the question now is: Why did the Penguins' penalty kill fall so hard?
Could the series-long suspension of Matt Cooke had that much of an effect on the penalty kill? Maybe.
Few teams in the NHL relied more on their top five penalty killers than the Penguins. This chart shows how much time each of the Penguins' top penalty killers averaged on ice per game:
Comparatively, the Penguins spread their penalty-killing during the playoffs out like so:
No one stepped up to take Matt Cooke's spot in the postseason. The playoff and regular season numbers look fairly even, but the Penguins gave up considerably fewer penalty minutes per game in the playoffs than in the regular season.
In fact, the Penguins averaged 48 fewer seconds on the penalty kill in the playoffs than during the regular season. This means that even though the Penguins' top penalty killers were used for a similar amount of time on the penalty kill overall, they were relied upon more often during the fewer penalties the Penguins had to kill. Adding the fact that most of the penalty-killers shouldered significant even-strength minutes (Staal, Talbot and Dupuis finished first, second and third in even-strength time on ice amongst all Penguins forwards) shows how heavy of a burden they were forced to carry.
This wouldn't be so bad if endurance in hockey were comparable to a marathon, but it's far from it. Proper hockey endurance requires the ability to recover quickly after short, hard expenditures of energy. Relying on, essentially, four penalty killers to rotate shifts every 30-45 seconds instead of five (or, ideally, six) can wear your horses down quickly.
It may not seem like much, but it is. Instead of getting the typical reprieve afforded between shifts, the same players were rotated repeatedly. Jordan Staal in particular, was also used heavily on the power play. The aggressive closing down that Penguins typically employed was less aggressive, passing lanes a little wider and opposing forwards given a little more room to operate.
The obvious solution would have been to introduce additional forwards to the penalty kill. For whatever reason, Dan Bylsma chose not to. Statistics seem to indicate that has been the case over the last two seasons, and I imagine it should play heavily in the Penguins' personnel decisions this off-season.
Talbot, Dupuis and Adams are all unrestricted free agents. So are fellow checking forwards Chris Conner, Arron Asham and Mike Rupp. The only relied-upon penalty-killers under contract for the 2011-12 season are Cooke and Staal.
A couple of the free agents should return, but not all. The penalty kill will go through a bit of an overhaul because of this, and as a result, Staal and Cooke will be relied upon that much more. Good thing they're used to being leaned on.
But for the penalty kill to truly succeed when the Penguins need it most, depth, the unit's one real weakness, must be addressed this offseason.