After limping out of the gate to an 0-3 start, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ record has evened up at 4-4. Their offense, however – ostensibly featuring four skilled lines with the potential to score – is still a work in progress.
Evgeni Malkin leads the club with seven points (3G, 4A) in eight games, followed by new addition Phil Kessel (3G, 1A) and defenseman Kris Letang (1G, 3A). Sidney Crosby (1G, 2A) finally found the net, but top wingers Patric Hornqvist and David Perron still haven’t.
The Penguins’ offense is sputtering overall, with just 13 goals in eight games; only the 1-5-1 Anaheim Ducks have scored less. But the biggest source of frustration is Pittsburgh’s powerless power play which, despite boasting the above-mentioned offensive threats, has cashed in just twice in 28 tries. That 7.1 percent conversion rate also ranks just above Anaheim for second-worst in the league.
A 2-1 overtime win at Nashville Saturday was a lucky outcome in a game where the Penguins spent nine minutes on the power play – including a five-minute major – and not only went 0-for-3, but spent nearly as much time chasing down the Predators in their own zone as generating offensive chances.
One reason for the power play’s struggles is faceoffs, where the Penguins are better than .500 overall but fall to 24-29 with the man-advantage. That puts them in a position of trying to gain the offensive zone from the start, and transitioning the puck up ice has been a problem – one that talented teams can exploit for odd-man rushes of their own.
“In the last few games, I thought we tried to get too cute with the puck at times; we passed up shots,” Johnston said after Thursday’s deflating, 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars to wrap up a five-game homestand. The Stars went 1-for-3 on the power play, while the Penguins went 0-for-5.
“We have to get more traffic at the net. I just thought we tried to make too many plays, and that got us into trouble because Dallas is a transition team, and they stung us in transition a couple times.”
Crosby agreed the Penguins haven’t had enough of a net-front presence.
“You’ve got to make it tougher on goalies. They’re big guys; they’re athletic. If you let them see every shot, they’re not only going to stop the first one, they’re probably going to be able to find the rebound, too. You’ve got to make it a lot more nasty in front of the net if you want to score more goals. One or two a game is not going to win us many games.”
Fortunately for the Penguins, they’ve been able to get their four wins with just nine goals because their own netminder has been outstanding.
“He’s been unbelievable for us all season long, making big saves all over,” Kessell said of Marc-Andre Fleury, whose 2.02 GAA and .932 save percentage both rank in the top six of goalies who have started a majority of their team’s games.
“He looks big in the net, he’s square to the puck, he’s keeping pucks tight to him,” Johnston said after the 2-1 win in Nashville, where Fleury faced 17 shots in each of the final two periods. “He was really good tonight when we needed him; we have a lot of confidence in him back there.”
That’s a good situation to have while the power play units and forward lines – where Kessel has been moved from Crosby’s wing to Malkin’s – try to develop some confidence and cohesiveness of their own.
“It was just something we were going to try, and move Kessel around a little bit,” Johnston said. “We had rotating wingers with them, so Perron played with them a little bit, [Sergei] Plotnikov, Kuni [Chris Kunitz]. That’s probably what you’re going to see.”