On Wednesday, during a 2-1 home shootout win against the Calgary Flames at PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang did something he had not done with great regularity since his earliest days as an NHL-er.
He played with another defenseman on the team’s top power-play unit.
The Penguins were 0 for 3 with power-play opportunities, with two of those sequences happening in regulation. Both scenarios saw the Penguins deploy a quintet with a composition they rarely have used in the past 12 years.
Up front were forwards Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin. Joining them were Letang and fellow defenseman Jeff Petry.
Both regulation power-play opportunities occurred in the first period, with the first one lasting only 48 seconds because of a mish-mash of penalties by both squads. The second power-play opportunity the Penguins saw lasted a full two minutes. During that span, they generated three shots on six attempts (including two shots and four attempts by the first unit) and offered some cause for optimism for coach Mike Sullivan.
“The full power-play (opportunity) we got, I thought we did a real good job just as far as shooting the puck and getting pucks down to the net and trying to create some opportunities off of it,” Sullivan said. “We haven’t had an opportunity to get a lot of (repetitions), both in games or in practice, but I thought on that particular power-play (opportunity Wednesday), they had some pretty good looks at the net. And it started with just establishing the shot. If we can think more than just shooting the puck and converging, I believe our guys will create off of that. If the initial shot doesn’t go in the net, we’ve got some of the best guys in the league down by the net. I don’t think there are two better players in the league than Sid and Jake in and around the blue paint in their ability to create off a rebound.”
Aside from specific situations late in games when they are protecting lead or the occasions injuries impact the lineup, the Penguins rarely have used two defensemen on the top power-play unit dating to Dan Bylsma’s tenure as coach. In fact, the last time it was the team’s default deployment was probably in the 2009-10 season, the final campaign of All-Star defensemen Sergei Gonchar’s tenure with the Penguins. He typically skated with Letang at that time.
Since then, it’s mostly been four forwards and one defenseman, primarily Letang.
“We actually did a try a little bit (with defenseman Paul Martin),” Letang said in reference to the 2011-12 season. “But most of the time, I had (forward James Neal, Malkin), Sid, (forward Steve) Sullivan. We’ve always kind of had four forwards.
“When I started, it was me, (Gonchar), Sid, (Malkin and forward Ryan Malone).”
For most of the past four seasons, it’s been Letang, Crosby, Malkin and forward Bryan Rust.
But with limited results on the man advantage in recent weeks, Rust was dropped to the second unit, and Petry was elevated. In their past 12 games, the Penguins have four power-play goals on 34 opportunities (11.7%).
“We’re trying to simplify,” Letang said. “We weren’t getting the results. Sometimes, you go back to the basics, and you simplify. You just shoot it and try to get some rebounds.”
Petry’s presence on the unit has him manning the point while Letang has moved to the left flank primarily. Ideally, it allows the right-handed Letang to utilize a one-timer from that area of the ice.
“He’s just got a good one-timer over there,” Guentzel said. “It’s nice having a righty over there where you can see it and get a one-timer off and whatnot. For Kris, he’s, obviously, really skilled, so you just try to get him the puck.”
The one primarily distributing the puck to others in this configuration is Petry.
“It’s a very talented group,” Petry said. “As of late, we’re trying to simplify things. Generating shots, that’s the thing that we’ve talked about. Generate some shots, and that opens up some plays. It’s, obviously, shoot when I have a chance but try to pull (defending players) over to give more time to (teammates) on the flanks and let them make their plays.”
Ultimately, there is one play the Penguins want to stress with this deployment above all others.
“Just tweaking things a little bit can be helpful when groups struggle, whether it’s power play or a line or a defense pair or whatever it might be,” Sullivan said. “Just making little tweaks that might jog a mindset or change the psychology of the group. Sometimes, that might breed some success. We’re going to explore a few different things and see if we can find something that can bring us more success than we’ve had to this point.”