PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins have been absolutely lethal on the power play this postseason.
Their man-advantage performance likely was the telling factor in a more tense-than-expected first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the New York Islanders. In that six-game victory, the Pittsburgh power play went 7-for-21, scoring in four of the games and providing a pair of winning goals.
Tuesday, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, it was the difference against the Ottawa Senators, who entered the series as one of the hottest teams in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh got power-play goals from Paul Martin and Chris Kunitz to build a 3-1 lead in what became a 4-1 victory. Afterward, the Senators, to a man, suggested the game was far more even than the score suggested and that special-teams play was the critical difference.
Pittsburgh went 2-for-3 on the power play and added a shorthanded goal from Pascal Dupuis. Ottawa went 0-for-6 with the man advantage.
"Obviously, discipline is the No. 1 factor with our team," Senators defenseman Marc Methot said. "Staying out of the [penalty] box and not allowing them to have that man advantage is a given."
Playing penalty-free hockey is an admirable goal but an unlikely happenstance for the rest of this series.
Ottawa will face the Pittsburgh power play several more times. As a result, they will have to find a way to shut down the teams' true difference-maker.
As evidenced in the first seven games Pittsburgh has played this postseason, that task is more easily verbalized than accomplished.
Why is Pittsburgh's power play so good? Here are five reasons:
There is no question Pittsburgh has more talent on its power-play units than any team.
"They have, basically, five all-stars on the first PP unit that are moving the puck around," Methot said. "And it's not easy to chase them and get hits on them when they're moving the puck properly."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has the ability to put Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla and Kunitz out with Kris Letang in a four-forward, one-defenseman alignment. That leaves Martin and James Neal as extras in the power-play rotation, not a bad luxury to have.
By the way, Neal has 27 power-play goals in the past two seasons and isn't guaranteed a top-five slot.
"First and foremost, the skill that is out there," said Craig Adams, one of Pittsburgh's primary penalty killers. "We can put two really, really good power plays out there, which we do."
With the amount of skill the Penguins possess, the options they have on the ice multiply.
Almost every one of the forwards who sees power-play time is comfortable taking station on the point if necessary. Each is comfortable playing off the half-wall or in the high slot.
The Penguins practice a variety of combinations and alignments. There is a comfort level no matter if it is a one-defenseman unit or a more conservative two-defensemen set. There is a willingness to break up the big guns and spread the wealth across two units, if necessary.
In essence, there is no true quarterback. That duty moves from player to player, depending on the defensive alignment and the way Pittsburgh's players are performing.
"I think just our different looks," Neal told NHL.com. "There are so many guys that have great shots and can score from anywhere. It's dangerous from everywhere. It's not like that one guy has that big shot and they can take it away and limit chances. If you take one guy away, there's another guy that is just as dangerous if not more dangerous. That's tough to cover."
Neal is the most dangerous shooter on the power play, yet he has none of their nine power-play goals this postseason.
Despite all the skill, the Penguins are not just out there freelancing.
There is a clear and concise plan when it comes to gaining entry into the attacking zone and setting up once there. The players are on the same page, and that uniformity allows Pittsburgh to gain possession in the offensive zone, which is often the most difficult part of any power play.
"Being on the same page is one thing, having a general plan," defenseman Matt Niskanen told NHL.com. "We always talk about having possession of the puck before we get to a certain spot. You just want to get in the zone, get possession of the puck, and then after that you just want to play hockey."
Basically, the Penguins have a plan to put themselves in the advantageous positions that will allow their inherent skill advantage to blossom.
"It's the hockey IQ of the guys on the ice," Adams said. "They are seeing things just in a totally structured way, but also that we have five guys on the ice and they have four so, 'Let's just go play hockey and do it.' When you have the skill, you are in good shape."
Nothing is off limits once possession is established in the offensive zone.
"Your players' instincts and skill take over," said Niskanen, who occasionally sees power-play time at the back-end of the rotation. "You try to have a shooter's mentality and outnumber them at the net. It all sounds simple, but the penalty kills in this League are so good this time of year, especially in this day and age. They really force you into some tough spots."
The second power-play goal by the Penguins in Game 1 against the Senators is a perfect example.
Letang was fed the puck in a quasi-no-man's land away from the blue line but not quite in the faceoff circle. Though it knocked the Pittsburgh formation out of whack, it also compromised the integrity of Ottawa's penalty-killing box. Iginla read that weakness and cut to the middle, which is not a typical line of attack on the power play. Letang read the move by Iginla and fed him a perfect pass. Iginla did not score on his shot, but it did generate a rebound that Kunitz converted into a goal.
"That's not a power-play play, that's just playing hockey, and with the guys out there, we can do that," Adams said.
Success breeds further success, and the Penguins are flying high with what they have enjoyed this postseason.
Simply, the Penguins believe their power play can win games for them. They just go out and try to make it a reality.
As often as not, they find a way to do that -- not that they are taking it for granted.
"It's a confidence factor going into the PP, being excited to score," Neal said. "We've had that throughout the year and it's huge in playoffs as well."
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