With the Penguins putting the debacle against the Flyers in the rear-view mirror, the team now only has five games remaining in the 2014-2015 regular season. With a playoff spot looking likely since pretty much the second month of the season, it ?s been difficult to get a good read on what this new-look Penguins team might look like in the playoffs.
Over the next couple of weeks, the Penguins will finish off the regular season with games against the Blue Jackets, Flyers, Senators, Islanders, and Sabres. With only the Islanders and the Senators currently in a playoff position and fighting for one respectively, the Penguins will have multiple opportunities over the final five games to get some things figured out before kicking off the postseason.
While at times it seems that the problems facing the Penguins appear infinite, especially after losses like the 5-2 rough up in Raleigh, here are the top 5 problems the Penguins must fix in the final five games:
1) The Power Play
It seems like every year for as long as can be remembered, the Penguins have had trouble on the power play. Even when they ?re doing good, the expectation that has transcended coaches and players and even eras is that when you have talent that the Penguins have, the power play should be nearly automatic. Unfortunately, this isn ?t a new phenomenon for the team and its fans, dating back to the 90’s with a power play that took refusing to shoot to a new level…until this current iteration it seems.
When a team is 8th in the NHL in power play conversion percentage it’s almost insane to think they could be better. Most who have watched the Penguins play can see pretty clearly what the Penguins are doing and what needs to be fixed. There are multiple issues at play here, which could make or break the Penguins come playoff time. Power plays in the playoffs are at a premium and converting on as many as possible can be the difference in a series.
The solution is a little more complicated than the ?shoot ? yelling crowd may have you believe, but that is definitely a part of it. The Penguins are putting on an average to even a high number of shots on the net during the power play this year, but the problem is that they are still passing up multiple opportunities to get the puck to the net. It seems that the Penguins, especially Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, still too often prefer to make a forced pass rather than just putting the puck on the net and working down low.
For the Penguins, the problem actually seems two-fold; they ?re using the wrong system with the wrong personnel. What ?s probably most interesting is that even though Head Coach Mike Johnston has written books about coaching strategy, including preferences for the power play, the Penguins don ?t actually use the system he describes. Currently the Penguins are using an overload power play structure, which is an unbalanced system with an alternating 2-2-1 rotation. If the Penguins want to maximize their potential, they need to use a system that best fits the personnel they have on the team, which is ironically the same 1-3-1 that Mike Johnston not only advocated for in his book, but it ?s the structure that he used to success with the Portland Winterhawks. While I won ?t break down the intricacies of the 1-3-1 power play, I would suggest checking out a post by Japers Rink from a couple years ago about the system, which can be found here.
The basic formation of the 1-3-1 power play system is having one player on the point, one player on each half-wall, one player in the slot and one player in front of the net. If you have the right personnel deployed, the 1-3-1 allows for skilled players to get the puck spread out, while the player down low can create havoc in front of the net and the player in the slot can clean up rebounds and load up on one-timers.
If the Penguins were to suddenly try a new power play system, they ?d need to ensure they have the right players out there. On the point, Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot are much better at getting pucks through on screens, while not losing much in terms of puck-moving ability compared to Kris Letang. Crosby and Malkin on the half-walls are pretty much given, with Blake Comeau and Brandon Sutter alternating when necessary. In the slot, Chris Kunitz and David Perron, both of which score an abnormally high amount of goals from that area. Lastly, in front of the net could be Patric Hornqvist and Steve Downie, neither of which have ever made a goalie ?s life easier.
If the Penguins are unlikely to make such drastic changes with only 5 games remaining, they ?ll be forced to look at other options for how to fix the power play before mid-April.
2) Staying Healthy
Needless to say, it ?s been a rough year for these Pittsburgh Penguins. Starting off the year, they lost Pascal Dupuis after only a short amount of games, followed by the back and forth drama and eventual loss of young up-and-comer Olli Maatta for the season. The Penguins have also lost Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, David Perron, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, Patric Hornqvist, and Christian Ehrhoff for considerable amounts of time this season.
Going into Wednesday ?s night game against Philadelphia, the Penguins were 5th in the NHL in Man Games Lost with 313, only behind Columbus, Colorado, Anaheim, and Buffalo.
With Malkin, Letang, and Ehrhoff missing games recently, the Penguins are at risk of entering the postseason already battered and bruised and less than 100%. If the Penguins want to make it through even one round, they ?ll need to be healthy. If Kris Letang is out for an extended period of time, the Penguins will be without one of their most powerful offensive weapons and could end up having an inexperienced defenseman called up from the AHL to start if both Letang and Ehrhoff can ?t go. Unfortunately for the Penguins, with the salary cap difficulties, they will have issues getting the young defensemen in the minors some playing time in the NHL before the playoffs, unless they utilize an emergency call-up.
3) The Line-up
Even if the Penguins manage to stay relatively healthy with both Malkin and Ehrhoff being available to start the playoffs, the Penguins still have some major questions throughout the lineup. While players like David Perron, Chris Kunitz, and Blake Comeau had great starts to the season, they, like the rest of the Penguins, have had trouble putting the puck in the back of the net. At the same time, players like Beau Bennett, Nick Spaling, Craig Adams, and Brandon Sutter have been less than spectacular throughout large stretches of the regular season.
In the last five games without much lineup flexibility, Head Coach Mike Johnston will have to experiment with the lineups that he believes will be closest to what the Penguins will take into the playoffs. With players like Kasperi Kapanen (already on the way to the AHL) and Oskar Sundqvist (likely to be on the way to the AHL after the conclusion of his season) possibly available, Head Coach Mike Johnston will have some difficult decisions if he believes the current roster isn ?t his best combination. Could Kapanen replace Bennett on the 3rd or 4th line? Could Sundqvist bump Adams from the 4th line or even possibly bump Sutter to the 4th line?
Going into the remaining five games, the Penguins will have an opportunity of setting the closest lineup possible with having to only replace one or two players, or they risk entering the playoffs resembling the Michel Therien-era teams that looked like they were composed with a random line generator.
The Penguins have a discipline problem. It ?s not a simple one to fix and the Penguins still haven ?t figured it out. In a recent two-part series, I covered the problem for the Penguins and whether it matters for the playoffs, which can both be found below:
Even if less penalties are called, the Penguins need to get their penalty problem under control and just play the game and give themselves a legitimate chance to win each game.
5) Scoring goals
The Penguins are 7th in the league in goals against per game and may be one of the best defensive teams in the league, but are simply having trouble scoring goals. Currently, the Penguins are 17th in the NHL in average goals per game at 2.71. Teams currently ahead of the Penguins in that category include St. Louis, Calgary, Minnesota, San Jose, and Winnipeg.
Also ranked above the Penguins in that category are the other 3 teams from the Metropolitan division that are currently in a playoff position: Rangers are 3rd at 2.99 g/gm, Islanders are 4th with 2.96 g/gm, and the Capitals are 6th with 2.90 g/gm. If the Penguins are matched up against a division rival, they will enter the game facing an uphill battle if they can ?t score. Penguins fans don ?t need a long memory to remember the disaster of only scoring two goals in an entire series in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins. The inability to score goals is not only the simplest way to sink a team ?s playoff hopes, it ?s also the hardest to fix.
Over their last ten, the Penguins have been snake bitten, gripping their sticks tighter than ever as they continue to have near-miss after near-miss in the offensive end. If the Penguins can concentrate on getting back to the fundamentals of scoring in these last five games, they ?ll have at least tried to fix their potentially most dangerous issue.
With only five games left in the season, injuries piling up, limited roster flexibility, and scoring droughts, the Penguins have their work cut out for them. There ?s a lot to be fixed and little time to do it before the games really start to matter. If the Penguins don ?t work on the five problems covered above, they could see a much shorter postseason for the first time in years. If the Penguins can fix a few or most of the problems above, they may be able to make a run, as the Eastern Conference still seems completely wide open.