In only two major sports, hockey and soccer(and I know some of you do not consider soccer a major sport, but that is a discussion for another day), is there ever an occasion for teams to be playing with an unequal number of participants. In hockey, this occurs when one team is assessed a minor penalty. The offending player is sent to the penalty box leaving your team short handed for either the duration of the penalty, 2 minutes, or until the other team scores a power play goal. This is meant to be a deterrent to committing penalties. Over the past 12 seasons in the NHL, the average rate at which teams have killed off penalties without allowing the other team to score with the extra man is 87.65% with the Penguins rate being 82%, and in two of those seasons they were actually under 79%.
Now, let’s take a look at the 2010/2011 Penguins. As far as I could find, only twice in the history of the NHL has a team finished the season with a penalty kill success rate over 90% which makes what the Penguins have done recently all the more impressive. They currently lead the NHL with a 90.2% rate, but what they have done since November 3rd is downright unbelievable. Since that date, they have only allowed 2 Power Play goals 70 chances having killed off 49 in a row since Steven Stamkos potted one in the third period back on November 12. That equates to a 97.1% rate since November 3rd and a 100% rate since November 13. On top of that, the Penguins have scored two short handed goals in that time period meaning they have scored as many short handed ones as they have given up while short handed.
What are some of the things that this can be attributed to? Well, there are number of factors involved. Number one has to be the return to Stanley Cup form of one Marc-Andre Fleury. Since November 12, Fluery is 8-0-1 with a 1.4 Goals Against Average, and, as the saying goes, “Your goalie has to be your best penalty killer”.
The other, mostly overlooked, factor has to be the return to the lineup of Zbynek Michalek. Michalek was signed by the Penguins on the first day of Free Agency back in July to a contract of $20 million over 5 years surprising many Penguins’ fans as he was not on anyone’s radar at the time except that of Ray Shero who said he had Michalek targeted from day one. We did not get to see much of Michalek early on as he suffered an arm injury in just the third game of the season against New Jersey causing him to miss the next nine games. The Pens’ penalty kill rate over those nine games was 86.8% which just goes to show you the difference since the return of Michalek to the PK unit.
Credit also has to be given to the rest of the number one penalty kill unit, Brooks Orpik, Craig Adams and Matt Cooke. Max Talbot (Now to be known as Fu Max Chu) and Pascal Dupuis make up the second unit along with defensemen Paul Martin and either Engelland or Lovejoy depending on which one of them is in the lineup that night. The forwards are not only tenacious in pressuring the other teams’ point men, but have been so good at it that they have scored 3 short handed goals in the last month (Crosby got an empty net, short handed goal against Calgary which, if he had scored on his penalty shot earlier in the game would have topped Mario’s feat of scoring every way possible in a game except Sid would have done it with four goals to Mario’s five)
I’m sure there is no way the Penguins will be able to maintain their recent 100% rate or even their November rate of 97%, but if they can keep up the 90% pace they are on for the season, then there is no reason to think they shouldn’t top their division and end up with one of the top two seeds for the payoffs.
PS – Yes, I know lacrosse also allows short handed situations, but if most of you don’t even consider soccer a major sport, I certainly wasn’t going to bring up lacrosse