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Success on penalty kill, not power play, could lead Penguins to postseason success

Updated 13 hours ago

Editor’s note: As the Pittsburgh Penguins hit their bye week, beat writer Jonathan Bombulie looks at four characteristics usually shared by Stanley Cup champions and where this year’s team stacks up in those areas.

What were the most memorable moments from the 2016 Stanley Cup Final?

Plenty of fans probably remember Kris Letang’s winning goal in the second period of a clinching Game 6 in San Jose. Others might recall the massive crowd that gathered outside PPG Paints Arena for Game 5, hoping to celebrate a championship at home.

How many know the Penguins gave up a grand total of one power-play goal in the series, including a perfect 16-for-16 record in the final five games?

What memories stand out from the final series in 1992?

Most would undoubtedly cite a moment from a Penguins comeback victory over Chicago in Game 1, either Jaromir Jagr’s legendary individual effort to tie the score or Mario Lemieux’s buzzer-beating winner.

How many recall that the Penguins gave up just one power-play goal in the series, successfully killing the last 15 penalties they took?

Those Penguins teams aren’t outliers. Seven of the last 10 Stanley Cup champions have been excellent penalty-killing teams in the regular season, ranking in the top 11 in the league.

Being good on the power play, meanwhile, doesn’t correlate nearly as strongly to postseason success. Only two of the last 10 champs, the Washington Capitals last year and the Penguins in 2017, finished the regular season in the top 15 in the league in power-play effectiveness.

It’s hard to figure why that is. Perhaps the component parts of a good penalty kill — sound structure, a commitment to shot blocking and great goaltending — are the kind of things that help playoff teams succeed in all manpower situations.

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to dismiss. When trying to decide whether a team has championship mettle or not, it’s better to look at its PK stats than its PP numbers.

“I think when it gets later on, there’s so much energy and there’s so much momentum one way or the other that I think a big penalty kill or a big power-play goal can either really deflate or really inflate your team,” Penguins winger Bryan Rust said. “I think your ability to kill off a penalty at a big time gives momentum to your team and kind of builds energy.”

This year’s Penguins team stacks up well in most special teams metrics. In fact, coming into Wednesday night’s games, they were the only team in the league to rank in the top five in both the power play and penalty kill.

They’re fifth on the power play (25.7 percent) and fourth in penalty killing (84.2 percent).

Having a potent power play is nothing new for the Penguins. They consistently have been among league leaders since Mike Sullivan took over as coach in December of 2015.

The penalty-kill success is a relatively recent phenomenon, however.

In the regular season last year, the Penguins ranked 17th in the league. In a second-round playoff loss to Washington, they gave up a power-play goal in each of Games 2 through 5.

The Penguins made significant changes to their PK personnel between now and then.

Among the team’s top four defensemen and top four forwards in short-handed ice time per game, Ian Cole, Matt Hunwick, Carl Hagelin, Carter Rowney and Tom Kuhnhackl are out and Jack Johnson, Olli Maatta, Rust, Matt Cullen and Zach Aston-Reese are in.

The improved results have given the Penguins some special teams optimism as the postseason draws nearer.

“I think we’re all just trying to work hard and work as a unit out there,” Rust said. “We’re playing on our toes. We’re not thinking too much. Just going out there and playing off our instincts, and things have been going well.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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