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A Look at Special Teams

Tuesday, 04.30.2013 / 5:57 PM / 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs Coverage
By Michelle Crechiolo
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A Look at Special Teams

Here’s a look at the special teams battle between the Penguins and Islanders in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

ISLANDERS POWER PLAY VS. PENGUINS PENALTY KILL
Arguably the biggest strength of the New York Islanders is their power play. It will be critical for them to be successful in this series.

The Penguins saw just how formidable it can be in the first meeting of the season between the teams – and that was before puck-moving defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky joined the top unit. In that game, the Islanders converted both of their power plays en route to a 4-1 win.

The Islanders celebrate after John Tavares' PPG in Pittsburgh on Jan. 29

John Tavares, set up on his off wing, got a pass on that side and missed his first shot, but when he got it back a short while later he buried it Steven Stamkos style. Less than two minutes later, the Islanders found the open man again – this time it was Matt Moulson – when Brad Boyes dropped a pass to him in the slot, and he put it away.

Coach Dan Bylsma singled out the work of captain Mark Streit as a major factor in their power play success. Streit quarterbacks the unit and brings the puck up the ice with the help of Visnovsky. They and the three forwards all have heavy shots they work hard to use.

But if the Islanders (whose power play finished the season ranked tied for 10th in the league) were at their best in that first game, they certainly were not for the remaining four games of the series. The Penguins did not allow another Islanders power-play goal the rest of the season, killing off all 16 opportunities.

“We’ve drawn some confidence for our penalty kill in how we’ve killed against them this year,” Bylsma said. “The special teams in the playoffs is the next-type-of-play situation. You get maybe one or two in a game. That one might come in a third period or a big time in the game, so it’s always about the next one. We know and are well aware of what kind of power play they do have and where they’re effective.”

That confidence comes even with the Penguins penalty kill finishing 25th in the league (79.6 percent) during the regular season.

“I think even though sometimes our PK hasn’t clicked during the year, we like the guys we have out there and the group that we have doing the job,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “(The playoffs are) a whole different fresh start, so I think you take that as a challenge to make sure that we do a good job.”

The Penguins have been preparing for this for a while now, and defenseman Mark Eaton assures they’re ready.

“(Their tendencies) are things we’ve looked at the last couple days,” Eaton said. “We were able to work on some things the last few weeks and implement them in games, so we’re confident going into the playoffs and excited for the challenge.”

PENGUINS POWER PLAY VS. ISLANDERS PENALTY KILL
Overall, Islanders didn’t fare much better statistically on the penalty kill during the regular season – finishing 21st (the Penguins went 3-for-14 in that category during the series).

Chris Kunitz scored two PPGs on March 10

But their X-factor is the speed they bring. New York’s top penalty killing forwards are Frans Nielsen, a heady player who plays a crafty game, and Michael Grabner, who’s the NHL’s fastest skater. Heck, if you Google his name the top search that comes up is “michael grabner speed.” They are both skilled at capitalizing on turnovers and missteps by their opponent and creating breakaways/odd-man advantages as a result.

But despite the threat those two present, the Penguins aren’t going to overthink the challenge – despite the possibility that they use one defenseman on the man-advantage with the elite forwards they have on the roster.

“I think you’re aware that they’re on the ice. I don’t think you do anything out of the ordinary of what you typically do to make plays,” Martin said. “On the power play, you just have to not take too many chances back at the blue line and just make sure you’re smart.”

Even without Sidney Crosby, who will not play in Game 1, the Penguins coaching staff still has an unfair amount of talent to choose from when drawing up their power-play units. The one they practiced with on Tuesday was Kris Letang, Jarome Iginla, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin.

Martin smiled at the thought of all the different combinations the Penguins could put on the ice with an Islander(s) in the penalty box. While he acknowledged it’s exciting, he also credited all of the Penguins stars with accepting whatever role they are – or are not – given on the power play.

“With the depth that we have and I think the guys that we have, being able to accept their role and where they play and how much ice time they have, is big,” Martin said. “It’s a good problem to have, I think. It’s definitely a tough one on the coaches to have to write in the lineup every night.”

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