“If you have good movement and you are executing around the whole offensive zone, there is a great chance you are going to be able to open a shooting lane. If you are willing to take that shot and you have guys standing in front, usually the recipe is going to be pretty good.” - Mike Yeo



Special Teams Fuel SurgeWednesday, 11.25.2009 / 2:33 PM / Features By Jason Seidling A recent surge of four wins in their past five games has vaulted the Penguins back to a familiar spot – the top of the Eastern Conference standings. Their 16 wins are two more than New Jersey’s 14 and their 32 points trail only the San Jose Sharks (36) in the overall standings. Two reasons for the Penguins’ getting back on track – an improved power play and an almost impenetrable penalty-killing unit.

“Sometimes you get one or two in a row and your confidence gets going,” Sergei Gonchar said. “It seems like when we are winning, our confidence is going and we are getting better and better on the power play every night.”

Pittsburgh heads into Wednesday night’s matchup with the Montreal Canadiens at Mellon Arena having scored a power-play goal in a season-high four-consecutive games. They are clicking at a 22.2-percent clip over their last 18 chances (4-for-18), and it is not just the increased percentage that is making a difference in the outcome of games, but the timely fashion in which the goals are being scored.

“We all realize how important it is to score on the power play because it gives you an advantage,” Gonchar said. “Especially nowadays, it is hard to score those guys. We recognize that when the opportunities show up we have to take advantage of it.”

Sidney Crosby took advantage in overtime during the Penguins’ 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Monday night, hammering home the rebound of Evgeni Malkin’s shot from the right point behind Tomas Vokoun to secure the victory.

“You need big goals from your power play,” Crosby said after. “A four-on-three in overtime, that’s a big point for us. We’ve been clicking and getting some results. That’s because of our work habits and getting loose pucks and creating things.”

Defenseman Martin Skoula, a member of the second power-play unit, got the opening goal for the Penguins in their 3-2 defeat of the Atlanta Thrashers on Nov. 21 with a long-range wrist shot that deflected off Atlanta’s Ron Hainsey in the slot and eluded netminder Johan Hedberg. Skoula said the Penguins’ approach to simplifying their game with the man-advantage and getting shots through traffic led to his score.

“We want to get pucks up top, shoot it and have guys in front of the net,” Skoula said. “We have been saying that we don’t have to be that pretty and we don’t have to make six plays before we shoot, we just have to get the puck on net when we have a chance and get a rebound or tip out of it.”

Assistant coach Mike Yeo, who runs the power play, believes the teams who get the most shots through traffic are the ones whose names appear at the top of the statistical charts with the extra attacker.

“You look at the top power plays in the game and I think that is a key,” Yeo said. “The team that gets the most pucks to the net with the most traffic in front is going to get the most goals. There is a process to getting the puck there. Sometimes it sounds easier than it is.

“If you have good movement and you are executing around the whole offensive zone, there is a great chance you are going to be able to open a shooting lane. If you are willing to take that shot and you have guys standing in front, usually the recipe is going to be pretty good.”

Two reasons the Penguins have been able to get more shots on net are the return to health of Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar, two of the league’s premier offensive talents, and the presence of point men such as Skoula, Mark Eaton and Ben Lovejoy whose strengths are more geared towards getting low, hard, accurate shots on goal rather than make tic-tac-toe diagonal passes.

“I think the fact we got bodies back – getting Geno and Gonch back – those guys are great players, but more importantly than that it gives us the confidence in getting back to what we are and what makes us successful,” said Yeo, assessing his unit. “It seems like when those guys or other bodies are out, like a Sid or a guy who is handling the puck a lot, the tendency is to force plays that aren’t there.

“As a result you forget about the process and you lose a lot of momentum off that. I think getting those guys back has been a great addition to getting us back on track and giving us confidence in our game plan.”
“If you have good movement and you are executing around the whole offensive zone, there is a great chance you are going to be able to open a shooting lane. If you are willing to take that shot and you have guys standing in front, usually the recipe is going to be pretty good.” - Mike Yeo
As far as Eaton and Co. generating increased scoring chances from the point, the defender was not about to take the credit for the team’s recent success.

“I don’t know how much of that had to do with me,” Eaton said. “When things aren’t going well you try to simplify it, get traffic and get pucks to the front (of the net). I think that’s what we have been doing.”

While Eaton takes the modest approach, Yeo believes his simplistic nature has benefitting the power play.

“A lot of times a guy comes out that has not been on the power play and you don’t know what to expect,” Yeo said. “He is making the simple plays. He is keeping the puck alive. When he has the chance he has been getting the puck to the net.”

As the Penguins find their groove with the man-advantage, opponents are finding it almost impossible to strike against their stifling penalty-killing unit. During the past five games the Penguins have killed 15 of the 17 penalties called against them (88 percent), including all seven during their two-game winning streak they bring into Wednesday night.

Three of the keys in keeping the opposition off the board when the Penguins are down by a skater – pressuring the puck, denying the blue line and good communication.

“I think we are being aggressive,” Brooks Orpik said. “I think one of the things is just being on the same page. I think that just goes with great preparation through meetings and guys communicating well.”

“You want to hold the blue line and make them dump or chip the puck as much as we can,” Skoula added. “It just comes down to all the guys being on the same page.”

The Penguins were on the same page against Atlanta, which brought the league’s third-best power-play into the game, but not only did Pittsburgh kill all three chances the Thrashers had, they barely allowed them any attack time in the zone, something Orpik said they focused on going in.

“I think of all the games we have played (recently), that was a game where our strategy going in was be more aggressive on their skill guys,” Orpik said. “They have so much skill on that power play. The easiest way to do that is not let them set up in the zone. We talked about the first eight seconds being aggressive on them.”

Jordan Staal, already regarded as one of the NHL’s best penalty killers at the age of 21, agrees with Orpik that the Penguins need to continue to make life miserable for star players during their kills.

“When you make good players do things they don’t want to do it makes it difficult on them,” he said. “I think pressuring up ice and making sure they aren’t playing in our end is big for us, too.”

The penalty kill has been a strength for the Penguins all season – their 83-percent kill rate is sixth in the league – but adding a more aggressive wrinkle has further enhanced their shutdown ability.

“We have changed some things around a couple games – we have gone aggressive,” Eaton said. “When everybody is on the same page and we are being aggressive and reading off each other, going as a unit of four, it works pretty well.”

“You see guys reading off each other,” Orpik said. “It is not one guy jumping and another not knowing what he is doing.

“That is the biggest thing, especially because special teams are what win games for you. Five-on-five (play) is so tight right now in this league.”