Where did the time go?
Seriously, it feels like training camp just ended yesterday. Yet, here we are in the final week of the regular season and the Penguins are engaged in wars on two fronts.
As discussed the other day, the Penguins are not out of the race for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference just yet.
The door closed another inch yesterday thanks to the New York Rangers not being able to seal the deal in regulation against the Flyers.
Their 3-2 shootout win allowed Philly to gain the point necessary to retake the conference lead over Washington. More importantly, it opened up a three-point gap on the Penguins with three games to play.
Things would have been much easier to deal with had the Rangers won in regulation because the Penguins would only be down two points with three to play.
Now, because the Flyers hold the tiebreaker, Pittsburgh needs to gain four points on Philadelphia in only three games.
At this point, I’m more inclined to focus my efforts on securing home-ice in the first round of the playoffs. If the division title comes along with that, great. If not, then at least the Pens are guaranteed a home game in a potential Game 7 situation against Tampa Bay.
Heading into Monday night’s action, the Bolts have won five straight games to close to within one point of the Penguins. That 2-1 regulation loss to Tampa Bay last week is looming large at the moment isn’t it?
Tampa Bay has three games left as well. On Tuesday they’ll be on the road in Buffalo to take on an upstart Sabres team that is looking to secure a berth in the playoffs.
Tampa will then return home Friday night to take on the Florida Panthers, before hitting the road to face the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.
Carolina is only two points behind the New York Rangers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. As a result, Carolina could potentially be playing for their playoff lives. Of course, that all depends on if the Rangers are going to choke down the stretch like last year.
These scenarios all paint a very clear picture for what the Pens need to do this week and that is to simply win.
They are going to have to play desperate hockey, battle for every puck and leave everything on the ice if they want home-ice.
Included in this scenario would be the Penguins getting to the net to score “dirty” goals. It couldn’t hurt to see the power play show signs of being powerful.
There are two major issues with the power play units at the moment. The first being entry into the offensive zone. The second is shooting the puck.
Let’s address the first issue.
It’s fine having someone like Kris Letang or Paul Martin carry the puck up the ice to begin the charge. However, by the time they hit the blue line, there’s three or four other Penguins standing completely still.
This approach makes the job of the penalty killers incredibly easy because they only have to focus on one guy coming with speed.
They can line three guys up near the blue line and hang one defenseman back to force the puck-carrier to chip it deep. By the time the other four Penguins, or even the puck-carrier get to the dump in, the opposition has it and is firing it back down the ice.
Two guys need to hit the line with speed to go retrieve the puck on a dump in. All I’m asking for is for the power play units to give themselves a better opportunity to gain control in the zone and actually set up without wasting 60-90 seconds.
Which brings me to my next point.
Once the Penguins have set up on the power play, someone needs to be selfish and shoot the puck. I don’t care who does it, but someone needs to keep the defense honest.
How many times has Evgeni Malkin fired a one-timer either wide or into the defenseman’s pads? It’s too many to count, but the fact remains that defenders have to keep an eye on him because they know he’s prone to shooting the puck.
As a result, other guys are given more time and space to attack.
The first semblance of this approach that I’ve seen in a long time was against the Florida Panthers Saturday night.
Zbynek Michalek took it upon himself to just start bombing away whenever he got the chance. While the power play didn’t produce a goal, it did generate several great second-chance opportunities.
Michalek’s eventual game-winner came on a similar play when he just put his dead down and uncorked a wicked twine-seeking missile from the right point.
The continued effort to look for the pretty play or to keep trying to execute the “Ryan Whitney” play needs to stop. It’s become too predictable. They could throw that play in there from time to time if the penalty killers are forced to stay honest in their zone.
It’s not rocket science. There are still some highly skilled offensive players on the roster despite Sidney Crosby and Malkin being out due to injury. However, some of the plays they are trying on the power play could only be completed by Crosby and Malkin because of their all-world talent.
Everything else in the Penguins’ approach has been simplified without the two-headed monster, so why not the power play?
Special teams will play a factor in the playoffs, it always does. The Penguins have three games to determine their fate and seeding and to figure something out on the power play.
The team needs to forget the struggles over the last 79 games with the man advantage and focus on fixing it over the next week. A hot power play could very well mean the difference between advancing and going home early in the playoffs.