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Don't put the Pittsburgh Penguins on the power play, because they'll kill you

The Penguins power play is off to a red-hot start. Here's how they're doing it.

Charles Leclaire-US PRESSWIRE


That's how efficient the Penguins power play has been to start the season. That Pittsburgh is finding success should come as no surprise, but even by the team's standards, which have been set very high through years of scoring goals by the barrel load on the power play, the Penguins 10-game start to this season has been quite good.

Since drafting special teams cheat code Sidney Crosby in 2005-06, and Evgeni Malkin a year later, the Penguins power play has finished sixth, fifth, fourth, 20th, 20th, 25th, fifth, second and first in terms of overall power play percentage. There was a rough three-year stretch in there, but this is a group that simply knows how to capitalize with the man advantage. Over that nine-season stretch, only the Sharks and Red Wings have scored more power play goals than the Penguins.

So for a team that's been consistently lethal in one discipline of its game for nearly a decade, to say they've started out the season hot is no throwaway statement.

Don't put the Penguins on the power play. Just don't do it. They'll beat you, and then they'll probably beat you again. And there's really not much you can do about it.

How do they do it?

Crosby and Malkin have had a more on-again, off-again relationship during their time in Pittsburgh than Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. (Note: Crosby is Bieber in this analogy because they're both Canadian, and only because they're both Canadian.) Coaches have tinkered with using the centers on the same line, almost always moving Malkin to the wing, but in most instances, the two have been kept apart.

The power play is an entirely different story.

Among the changes new Pens head coach Mike Johnston has brought to Pittsburgh this season includes reuniting Crosby and Malkin on the team's top power play unit. Last season, the pair was split up -- and the Penguins' numbers didn't really suffer. Its 23.4 PP percentage was tied for tops in the league.

But with Malkin and Crosby back together on the same unit this year, they're world-beaters.

Of the 18 power play goals the Penguins have scored this season, 15 have come from the Crosby-Malkin unit. Heck, even one of the goals scored by the team's second unit was assisted by Crosby, with Malkin playing one of the points. It's not exactly like Pittsburgh and Johnston discovered a cure for the common cold with its new configurations: put the best and arguably second-best players on the planet on the ice when they have more room to operate and the results are going to be good.

The other noteworthy thing about the Penguins' power play success is that these goals are often swinging games in one way or the other: 11 of the team's 18 power play goals have been netted in games that were tied or were a one goal apart. Of the Penguins seven wins, three of them have seen the game-winning goal come on the power play. And yes, all three of those scores have all come from the Crosby-Malkin led group.

It's early of course, but the Penguins power play is converting at 41.9 percent so far this season -- just an incredible mark. Only three times in league history (all in the 1970's) had a power play come in at above 30 percent for the season. Those marks were set by the Islanders (three times: in '75-76, '77-78, and '78-79), and by the record-holding '78-79 Canadiens, who finished the season at 31.9 percent.

For reference, through Pittsburgh's first 10 games last season, the team went 7-for-40, or 17.5 percent.

It's still premature to consider the Penguins as challengers to those all-time numbers quite yet, but just because Pittsburgh's power play is very green this season doesn't preclude it from being very red.

Crosby and Malkin are too much to contain

When Stephen Curry was playing his college basketball at Davidson, he appeared in a game against Loyola College in which the Greyhounds decided to double-team Curry whenever his team had the ball. It didn't work and Loyola lost the game, but they held Curry without a point.

As much as teams wish they could do that against Crosby and Malkin, it's simply not an option. When you factor in how open things get on the power play, the inability to shadow 87 and 71 becomes a recipe for disaster.

On this power play goal against Nashville, the Predators have a difficult time deciding whether to focus on Malkin or Crosby, which is hardly their fault.

This play begins with a good individual effort from Malkin to gain the zone. Nashville is pretty packed in and condensed in the area around Malkin, but that's not uncommon when a player is carrying the puck in on the power play.

PP Balance

As Malkin gains the blue line, he's still being enveloped by Predators skaters. Anton Volchenkov, positioned right about the circle, is ready to slide toward the boards if Malkin makes his way down the wall, while even the Nashville skater on the weak side is fixated on 71.

PP Balance 2

Malkin manages to split the penalty killers, and carries the play toward the goal line. With Nashville's entire unit continuing to collapse toward him, the puck makes its way to Crosby, and the Predators completely shift their focus from 71 to 87.

PP Balance 3

It's almost hard to figure how a shorthanded team could just completely abandon their coverage on Malkin, but in that split second, Nashville does just that.

PK Shift

Suddenly, Nashville's zone-spacing is completely thrown off. With four skaters singularly focused on one player, and then suddenly diverted to a second, there are open pockets of ice and passing lanes created. Specifically in this frame below, the Predators' box is busted, with the low man -- responsible for Malkin --  stuck above the right dot.

Crosby has a very clear lane to hit Malkin while Nashville is only paying attention to Crosby.

PP Balance 4

Finally, Crosby fires this seam pass onto Malkin's tape, and even Pekka Rinne is caught leaning toward Crosby's side of the ice. It's a layup for Malkin, as it would be for any player, yet it's still difficult to believe how a player of that skill level could be left so wide-open.

PP Balance 5

An effective net-front presence

The players who operate above the hashmarks on Pittsburgh's power play -- Crosby, Malkin, and a combination of Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff -- are really good at their jobs. When you have that kind of talent orchestrating the action, there are bound to be second-chance opportunities, or chances for other players to succeed on that unit.

That's where Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz come in.

As far as the Penguins power play is structured, Hornqvist is really the player stationed above the crease, while Kunitz is also good at reading the play, and making his way to the front to get involved. Together, the duo makes it rather difficult for goalies to see the puck, or punish them if they give up any rebounds.

On this power play goal, Hornqvist takes away goaltender Martin Jones' vision, and Kunitz does the rest of the work.

While this is a 5-on-3 for Pittsburgh, the spacing isn't all too different than what you'd see on a 5-on-4. As Crosby holds the puck on the wall, both Kunitz and Hornqvist make their way to the front.

PP Net Front

The puck makes it way back to the point, and Kunitz and Hornqvist are still packed pretty tightly in toward the blue paint.

PP Net Front 2

Pittsburgh loses the puck, and Kunitz skates out toward the circle to corral it. But as he gets the puck, and sends it back to Malkin on the point, both he and Hornqvist stick to the game plan and work their way toward the crease.

PP Net Front 3

Kunitz passes the puck to Malkin, and begins to creep down between the dots. Matt Greene is forced to slide up into Malkin's shooting lane, giving Hornqvist and Kunitz even more space to operate down low.

PP Net Front 4

And now the Kings are screwed. Malkin lines up a perfect shot-pass to Kunitz with Greene jumping the shooting lane. Hornqvist has Robyn Regehr tied up in front, and is completely screening Jones.

PP Net Front 5

Jones literally has no idea the puck has made its way down low until Kunitz is in the process of re-directing it.

PP Net Front 6

Perhaps the scariest element of the Penguins power play is how easy the make it look. It's simply a group of players executing a strategy, and not doing anything all-too fancy. There will be times when Crosby or Malkin create a goal on the power play out of their sheer skill, because that's something they're capable of doing. But for now, it's been all x's and o's, which have been clicking for the Pens.

"We knew they had the best power play in the league, and obviously their personnel is where it's at," Sabres defenseman Mike Weber told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after Buffalo conceded three power play goals to Pittsburgh on Saturday on five penalties. "But look at what they're doing. They're doing all the simple things. They're moving the puck down low. If they don't have a play, they move the puck up high. Then it's pass, pass, shoot. They keep it so simple."

Simple, yet so effective.