Slumping power play latest obstacle for struggling Penguins |

Slumping power play latest obstacle for struggling Penguins

Jonathan Bombulie
Penguins right wing Patric Hornqvist has not scored in eight games since returning from a concussion.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have had no shortage of hurdles standing in the way of their prospective prosperity this season.

For a while, they were giving up odd-man rushes like it was going out of style. Occasionally, the goaltending was leaky. From time to time, they weren’t showing up with the necessary focus to handle lesser opponents.

These days, though, a new problem has emerged. Right now, the power play is stuck in an ugly slump.

The Penguins are 1 for 19 with the man advantage over the past eight games. They’re 2-5-1 during that stretch and have sunk to the periphery of the Eastern Conference playoff picture heading into an important Monday night matchup in Philadelphia.

“We try to do the right things out there,” winger Patric Hornqvist said. “Sometimes it’s puck luck, but I actually think it’s a little more (lack of) execution right now. It’s from all five of us. We all have to be better.”

The most damaging thing the power play is doing at the moment, of course, is giving up short-handed goals. The Penguins lead the league with 12 conceded this season, and the one they gave up to Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli on Saturday night might have cost them an important game.

After the 5-4 loss to the Lightning, coach Mike Sullivan said he was tired of talking about the matter. The players know how dangerous it is to flippantly turn pucks over in key areas of the ice. They know what happens when they don’t backcheck conscientiously once they have committed a turnover.

Still, the problem persists.

As infuriating as short-handed goals against can be, they could be overlooked if the Penguins were scoring at their customary rate on the power play.

They’re not, and that’s an essential ingredient missing from their recipe for success.

The Penguins aren’t built to smother opponents defensively or grind out shift after shift below the goal line. They must produce when there’s more time and space for their skilled players to shine.

The Penguins are 16-8-3 when they score at least one power-play goal this season. They’re 12-12-4 when they don’t.

“Obviously, when you get the opportunity to go out there and you score goals, you give yourself a chance to win,” Kris Letang said.

Sullivan has a clear idea of how he thinks the Penguins should improve their power play: shoot more.

“We have the puck in so many grade-A areas, and we’re looking for the next play,” he said. “We’re trying to pass it in the net. I think we’ve got to shoot it in the net.”

Hornqvist has a thought, too: move more.

“Don’t play position. Play possession instead. Go to spots,” Hornqvist said. “Like me, I’m always around the net, but sometimes I have to go into the corners to help the play.”

As the power play has struggled, some of the team’s top stars have begun to slip into slumps.

Phil Kessel has no points and four shots in his past four games. Hornqvist hasn’t scored since returning from a concussion eight games ago.

The return of Evgeni Malkin and Justin Schultz should help. So, too, should the law of averages. The Penguins have too much talent to go dry on the power play for too long.

For now, though, nothing would help get a floundering team back on track like a power-play goal or three.

“My experience of being around the game is your offensive players, they tend to build momentum off the power play,” Sullivan said. “When they’re executing and the puck’s going in, or even if they’re not scoring but they’re creating opportunities on the power play, it helps their five-on-five game. The momentum carries over.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.