The list of talent at the disposal of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ coaching staff is almost unfair.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both superstars, ranking first and second in points-per-game among NHL players since 2009-10. Chris Kunitz is a former first-team All Star. Kris Letang is a phenomenal first-unit power play defencemen. This is a team that should dominate offensively, especially on the man advantage.
Yet talent isn’t everything when it comes to generating offence on the power play. The Penguins themselves illustrate this nicely; when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009 the team ranked 20th in the NHL with a 17.2 percent conversion rate, despite the presence of that quartet above; they’d fall all the way to 25th in 2010-11.
Another good example is the Minnesota Wild. The list of talent isn’t quite as brilliant, but it’s still long and impressive, with Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Ryan Suter all featuring prominently. The Wild have just five power-play goals on the season; that’s fewer than the Penguins even if we subtract the 15 scored by Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz and Letang.
How are the Penguins so good? And why are the Wild so terrible?
There are a bunch of different answers to those questions, but basically it boils down to two key factors: Random chance, which plays more of a role than we normally like to admit; and the fact Pittsburgh’s players are both insanely trigger-happy and crash the crease almost reflexively.
We’ll get the chance component out of the way first, since it’s both boring and predictable.
The Penguins average just seven shots more per hour than Minnesota (65-58), yet simultaneously score 10 goals more in that same hour (13-3). Pittsburgh’s shooting percentage is buzzing at an almost certainly unsustainable 20.4 percent, while the Wild’s is down in the dumps at 5.0 percent. Neither of those will continue at their present rate, and when they change, the gap between the two power plays will get smaller. Both teams had played just 17 games as of this writing, so it’s not a surprise to see chance playing a significant role.
With that caveat out of the way, we can key in more on the actual differences between the two units. We’re not going to focus too much on power play structure; both teams have (more or less) adopted the 1-3-1 setup that is ubiquitous around the league at the moment. We’re also not going to look too much at how these clubs gain the offensive zone. Instead, we’re going to key in on how they have scored their goals.
A lot of times, we picture the power play as a unit that gains the zone, finds its formation, and then passes the puck until the perfect shot emerges, but that isn’t really how the Penguins operate. Just five of the team’s 22 goals came off relatively clean shots. The other 17 (77.3 percent) were scored by shooting and going to the net, either by way of rebound, redirect, or just standing there and blocking the goalie’s vision while the puck goes whistling by.
Minnesota, on the other hand, relies heavily on clean goals. Three of the team’s five tallies (60.0 percent) saw a sniper beat the goalie cleanly; only two others came by redirect and the Wild hasn’t scored any power-play goals off rebounds or by just blasting the puck into traffic. The problems with the Wild power play can be demonstrated (ironically enough) by way of one of the goals they succeeded in scoring:
That Jared Spurgeon goal starts with Mikko Koivu passing to Jason Zucker; Koivu could have shot the puck with Zucker providing the screen, but instead Zucker shifts to one side of the net. Zucker next passes to Jason Pominville in the slot; Pominville could have shot with Koivu in front, but instead holds the puck until Koivu slides to the side to take the pass. Koivu gives the puck back to Pominville, who is in shooting position at point blank range, but instead Pominville slides the puck through a defender to the side of the net where Spurgeon scores on an empty net at point blank range.
Going back and watching the entire power play is incredible, both for the way the Wild’s forwards duck away from the front of the net and the club’s reluctance to shoot. The first half of the man advantage saw Minnesota hold the zone with possession for a full 35 seconds consecutively; the team made 12 passes before finally electing to try a shot on net.
It’s hard to score when ‘pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, shoot!’ is a team’s strategy in the offensive zone.
Pittsburgh is a different animal entirely. The Penguins don’t bother trying to get into perfect formation; they setup the conditions to get a shot away and then they shoot the puck. Not one of the Wild’s goals were scored within 15 seconds of a zone entry; Pittsburgh has scored in those situations six times, including Crosby’s most recent goal on Tuesday against Montreal:
There isn’t anything artful about the goal. There is exactly one pass after the team gains the zone, cross-ice from Crosby to Malkin. Malkin takes just a moment to pivot around the puck and slide toward the middle before firing a dangerous shot on Carey Price. Malkin, Crosby and Patric Hornqvist all follow the puck to the net to pursue the rebound; Hornqvist gets one whack at it and then Crosby finishes the play off.
Given the choice between pretty and effective, the Penguins have opted for the latter. That’s because it’s the right choice.