James van Riemsdyk (left) and Evgeni Malkin (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
These are not your father's Pittsburgh Penguins. The flightless birds find themselves with the best points percentage in the NHL and it's not because they've simply overwhelmed their opponents with a barrage of goals. They can now play it any way you want it.
As has been the case for the better part of the past decade, the proof will be in the playoffs for these Pittsburgh Penguins. They’re the No. 1 team in the NHL at this moment in terms of winning percentage, but we’ve seen this act before. Nobody will believe this team is for real until the players and their goalie prove they can excel in the post-season.
But there is a different feel around this team. With guys like Nick Spaling, Patric Hornqvist and Steve Downie in the lineup, they’re certainly a little more difficult to play against. Heck, even Evgeni Malkin got into a fight in the Penguins 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Friday night after he responded to a perfectly clean hit by Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf. There is a sense that not only do these Penguins have more of an edge, they also have more of a team concept in their own end of the ice.
With their win Friday night, the Penguins are on pace to give up just 180 goals this season, which would be a franchise record for a non-lockout season. Against the Leafs, they seemed content to play a very boring and uneventful first period without trying to turn the game into a pond hockey event. And it certainly helps when your penalty killing goes 6-for-6 and your goaltenders play as well as Marc-Andre Fleury and Thomas Greiss have this season. (Again, we’re going to wait until April before we get fully on board there.)
Much of this has to do with new coach Mike Johnston, who has been able to coerce his players into playing a system that Dan Bylsma couldn’t. The Penguins seem to have more patience and more of a willingness to play in the flow of the game rather than turn every game into a shootout.
“I think a lot of it has to do with being comfortable playing in any kind of game,” Johnston said. “If it’s a 1-0 game either way, we want to be able to respond to that. And if it’s a higher scoring game, we want to be able to play that way.”
Prior to losing 5-0 to the New York Rangers Tuesday night, the Penguins had allowed just five goals in their previous five games, including two shutouts. Even with the loss to the Rangers, the Penguins penalty killers have snuffed out 28 of 29 power plays in the past seven games. And when your power play is on a better than 30 percent clip, that’s going to lead to a lot of victories.
The Penguins currently sit second overall on the penalty kill and first in the league on the power play. Most teams consider themselves to be doing well if the combination of their power play and penalty killing percentages is somewhere between 100 and 110. The Penguins are currently killing and scoring at a 122.6 rate.
For Johnston, it all goes back to the comfort level in games. “There was a time early in the season when I didn’t think we were all that comfortable in the tight scoring games,” Johnston said. “I thought we played a little to anxiously. But I think we’re more relaxed and calmer now. And it helps when you get the goaltending and the penalty killing we’ve been getting lately.”
Defense is still a work in progress for this team, but one of the differences, according to their best player, is that the Penguins have become a better possession team, something that is born out in both their shots per game and their advanced stats. They’re averaging about two shots per game on goal more than they have in the past couple of seasons, which means they’re controlling it more in the offensive zone.
Sidney Crosby, in particular, has been a beast on that front, with a Corsi rating of 66.7 percent. At one point late in the win over Toronto, Crosby basically controlled the puck in the Leafs end and along the boards for about 30 seconds, which came after Beau Bennett beat out an icing call.
“I think that’s the biggest thing for us,” Crosby said. “Our best defense is playing in the other team’s end.”