Tag:Brooks Orpik
Posted on: March 7, 2012 2:53 pm
Edited on: March 7, 2012 3:18 pm
 

Kris Letang: the missing piece for the Penguins



By: Adam Gretz

Pucks and Numbers: a weekly statistical look at what's happening around the NHL. This week: A look at the importance of Kris Letang to the Penguins' postseason chances.

When it was announced on Tuesday afternoon that Sidney Crosby has been cleared for contact, the next major step in his latest attempt return to the lineup, it sent a wave of excitement and optimism through the Penguins fan base.

It's not hard to see why. He is, after all, their captain, their best player, and the best player in the league when he's healthy.  With him in the lineup the Penguins should go from being a Stanley Cup contender to, perhaps, one of the top two or three favorites -- if not the favorite -- in the NHL ... if their lineup remains intact.

His return, whenever it happens (it apparently won't be before Sunday's game against Boston) will certainly have a significant impact on their chances. But, and as crazy as this may sound, there is still another player they are currently without that may be even more important for any sort of Stanley Cup run in Pittsburgh -- defenseman Kris Letang, who is currently out of the lineup after being hit by Eric Nystrom of the Dallas Stars at the end of February.

It's the second time this year he's missed time with a head injury, missing over 20 games with a concussion earlier this season after he was hit by Montreal's Max Pacioretty.

The Penguins have been without Crosby, minus the eight games he played earlier this season, since the beginning of last January, which is over a full calendar year and nearly a season-and-a-half worth of games, and they have still managed to be one of the top teams in the NHL.

In 65 games this season they are the third-highest scoring team in the league (in terms of goals per game) and have the second most points in the Eastern Conference, trailing only the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers. It's a testament to the depth they've acquired over the years and the 1-2 punch they still have down the middle at center with Evgeni Malkin (arguably the best player in hockey right now) and Jordan Staal, a duo that few teams in the NHL can match up with.

Even without Crosby they still have another No. 1 center, a darn good No. 2 center, and a pretty potent offense overall. One of the best in the league.

What they don't have without Letang is another No. 1 defenseman, and that's a pretty glaring weakness to have on a potential Stanley Cup team. Their blue line takes on an entirely different look without him, and it simply isn't anywhere near as effective. Just looking at the raw numbers this season: with Letang in the lineup the Penguins are 25-10-5, average over 3.2 goals per game, only allow 2.4 and have a total goal-differential of plus-31.

Without him those numbers drop down to a 14-11-0 record, 2.68 goals for per game, 2.56 against and a total goal differential of just plus-3.

Is Letang by himself worth that entire difference? Well, not exactly, because the Penguins have had other players out of the lineup at various times, but his absence is still huge given the number of roles he's asked to play, and the way he's able to perform within them.

He plays over 25 minutes a night, he is their power play quarterback, a regular on the penalty kill, and during even-strength situations he takes on some of toughest assignments on the Penguins defense, as the scatterplot below, which uses Corsi Relative Quality of Competition and Offensive Zone starts, helps to illustrate. The closer to the top left (meaning tougher opponents and fewer offensive zone starts) the more difficult the assignments, and the closer to the bottom right the "softer" the assignments.

PenguinsDefense

As you can see, the Penguins have a pretty set group of top-four defensemen that stand out from the pack when it comes to their 5-on-5 assignments with Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek. Everybody else that's played on their blue line this season has been relatively protected. And when Letang is out of the lineup, as he's been for 25 games and counting this season, one of those other players has to step into a top-four role, and the results aren't always pretty.

Letang not only draws some of the toughest assignments on their blue line, he also outperforms everybody else. He has a positive Relative Corsi rating (a sign that when he's on the ice the Penguins are controlling the puck far more than they are when he's not on the ice) and he is by far their leading scorer on the blue line despite appearing in just 40 games. Orpik is a great physical presence on the blue line, and Martin hasn't been anywhere near as bad as his many critics in Pittsburgh want you to believe that he's been, but none of them are as valuable to the Penguins blue line as Letang.

His ability to get the puck out of danger, lead the rush and control the game is unmatched by any other player on their defense.

Crosby's return will be huge news, and it will give the Penguins pretty obscene depth down the middle. But the return of Letang is what would potentially put the the Penguins over the top, on paper anyway.

I'm still convinced they could win without Crosby due to the presence of Malkin and Staal at center. I'm not convinced they can win without Letang (even with Crosby) because they have nobody else that can fill his skates on defense.

(Corsi, Quality of Competition and Zone Start Data all via BehindtheNet.ca)

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
Posted on: February 5, 2012 4:06 pm
Edited on: February 5, 2012 4:16 pm
 

Weekend Wrap: Nothing to Laich in Caps loss

By Brian Stubits

The Washington Capitals lost to the Bruins on Sunday on their home ice, 4-1.

As big of a loss as that is for the Caps, seeing Brooks Laich go down in the game is as big of a concern as anything for Washington right now.

In the second period, Laich was playing the puck behind the Bruins net when Boston defenseman Dennis Seidenberg delivered a check into the boards. It looked innocent enough but there was some contact on the play that pinned Laich's knee against the boards. Moments later he was being helped off the ice and down the tunnel toward the locker room without putting any pressure on his leg.

He came out during a television time out to test the knee but he couldn't go on. He left the arena with a brace on his knee and with the help of crutches.

More from the weekend
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"I’m not a doctor, but with these things sometimes there’s some swelling ... But I don’t think it’s anything serious," Laich said after the game. "I'll get some ice on it and see how I feel when I wake up."

"He's day to day right now," Caps coach Dale Hunter said after the game. "We're just going to wait and see."

They better hope so. It's no secret that this season the Caps are in a dog fight just to make the playoffs. With the loss today, they remain out of the playoff seedings in the East at the moment. If they are going to sans Laich for any length of time, that makes things even tougher.

The Capitals already have a weakness up the middle with Nicklas Backstrom still on the sidelines since he was hit in the head by Rene Bourque. They can't afford to lose another center like Laich, who is one of their more consistent players and is a big piece for a team that hasn't been scoring much.

The good news for Washington is that despite the loss, they actually outshot an opponent on Sunday afternoon. They had 36 shots to the Bruins' 30, so there's that. Their pace of shooting has been way too low for well over a month now so that's a step in the right direction.

But they need to keep their fingers crossed Laich will be OK. He's a very underrated player for the Capitals, a solid two-way guy that probably every team in the NHL would like to have on their side.

With a win over the Canadiens on Saturday, normally you'd say a weekend split isn't bad. But depending on how Laich comes out of this, it could be.

Hit of the weekend

Watch Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik send Daniel Paille of the Bruins flying through the air at center ice.

I'm not sure it's 25 feet as the Penguins announcers says. I have a hunch they might have been dabbling in the art of hyperbole, something I do myself from time to time. But that still is probably the greatest hit in the history of hockey hits.

In this day and age you're not used to seeing the Bruins players acting as the ragdolls, they're usually the ones doing the pushing.

Shootout shutdown

The Colorado Avalanche are historically good when it comes to the shootout. They just don't lose in the "skills competition." That was until Saturday.

On the season the Avs were 7-0 in shootouts. Go back to last season and the streak was 10 consecutive shootouts. For an event that is statistically close to a tossup, that's pretty remarkable.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. The Avalanche finally lost a shootout this Saturday to the division rival Vancouver Canucks, failing to score in their three attempts.

Their shootout success has been a big reason why the Avs are as close in the playoff picture as they are. Those are crucial points to be picking up. And while losing the extra point to the Canucks doesn't seem like the biggest thing in the world considering they likely aren't catching the reigning Western Conference champs in the Northwest, it is obviously critical in the hunt for that eighth spot.

What a game

Speaking of shootouts, the only other team this season who had yet to fall in a shootout also suffered the fate on Saturday.

Despite two goals from Todd Bertuzzi (his first was the 300th of his career), the Detroit Red Wings couldn't hold onto their late third-period lead against the Edmonton Oilers.

Of course Sam Gagner played a huge part in the Oilers effort. He scored a point on each of the Oilers' eight goals against the Blackhawks in Edmonton's last game and then he was in on each of the Edmonton's first three goals against Detroit.

While he didn't get in on the game-tying goal in the final minute for the Oilers to snap his streak, Gagner did tally a score in the shootout, helping the Oilers eventually prevail thanks to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' shootout goal in his first game back, giving the Red Wings their first shootout defeat.

It was one of the better games of the season, a very entertaining, back-and-forth game. Minus the shootout, it had everything most every hockey fan likes to see.

Hit of the weekend Part II

I'm not sure this can compete with the Orpik-on-Paille hit, but it's still worth watching. I mean, who doesn't love guys being dumped over the boards?

The Wild and Stars got together for a crucial game for the West playoff picture and at least this hit showed how big it was. Watch Jake Dowell get dumped over the boards and into the camera well by Jed Ortmeyer of the Wild.

I'd say that's as good as time as any for a line change.

Quote of the weekend

“It was a party. It’s always fun. It keeps you in the game. Who knows, though? The next game I might get 15 to 20 shots, and you have to be ready for that, too.” -- Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators goalie on facing 43 shots against the Blues. (from the Tennessean).

Only a goalie could think his team facing 43 shots in one game could be considered a party.

Then again, when you beat a division rival 2-1 and move second place in the ultra-competitive Central, well then it might feel pretty good.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: January 17, 2012 10:43 pm
Edited on: January 17, 2012 10:46 pm
 

Video: Skinner takes big hit, returns to game

By: Adam Gretz

PITTSBURGH -- On Tuesday night Carolina's Jeff Skinner was playing in just his second game back in the lineup after missing the previous 16 with a concussion.

That's why it had to be tough for the Hurricanes to watch as their 19-year-old star forward was on the receiving end of a punishing open-ice hit from Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik midway through the third period of their 2-1 shootout loss to the Penguins.

This is the hit that resulted in a two-minute minor penalty to Orpik for interference. 



Skinner stayed on the ice for a few seconds and was eventually able to skate off on his own power, and even showed some frustration as he went to the locker room, breaking his stick as he walked down the tunnel.

He remained out of the game for a few minutes before ultimately returning, and was even sent out for a shootout attempt by coach Kirk Muller.

"I saw him coming," said Skinner after the game. "I thought I could chip it and get by him, and when I realized I couldn't I tried to get my hands up to protect myself as quick as possible. I felt fine the rest of the game. Doctor talked to me, asked me some questions, we went through some tests and took our time and went back out there."

When asked if he felt if there was any contact with his head, Skinner said "I don't know. I looked at the replay when I was in the room and it didn't look like it. I think I got my hands up and if there was any contact I think my hands hit my head. I just kind of stayed down there and tried to collect my thoughts and not rush getting back up. It was a pretty good hit."

Of course, the penalty call on the ice resulted in quite a few surprising developments. When it happened in real-time, and without the benefit of a replay, it was almost as if there was an expectation that it was going to be a major penalty just because it was such a big, open-ice hit, combined with the fact there was a player down on the ice. But as the replay showed, it was not only a good body-to-body check, it also shouldn't have even been a penalty for interference as Skinner clearly touched the puck prior to being hit.

Orpik said that the referee apologized to him following the overtime period and before the shootout for making an incorrect call.

The reaction in the Hurricanes locker room after the game was one of relief (after some initial concern) after seeing one of their top-offensive weapons go down so hard in front of their bench, so soon after he was able to return to the lineup.

"Anytime something like that happens you hold your breath," said Hurricanes captain Eric Staal. "Orpik's a guy that's physical, and he's stepping up, and that's his game. There has to be an awareness of that, and it's one of those situations where on our side we don't like it, for their side they're calling it a clean hit. We're just glad that he came back and recouped in the room."

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: December 10, 2011 9:07 pm
Edited on: December 10, 2011 9:29 pm
 

Travis Hamonic was ejected for this play

By: Adam Gretz

With the Islanders leading, 3-2, midway through the secod period one of their top defenseman, Travis Hamonic, was assessed a five-minute major for elbowing as well as a game misconduct for a hit on Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. The call resulted in a two-man advantage for the Penguins that included the game-tying goal from James Neal, his second goal of the game.

After watching the replay, it's difficult to see why Hamonic was penalized, let alone ejected.

You can check out the play by clicking right here.

Orpik did leave the ice and head to the locker room, later returning with a noticable cut on the top part of his nose. But based on that look it appears to be the result of his own stick hitting him in the face rather than Hamonic's Elbow, which doesn't appear to make any contact with Orpik's head.

Bad call that shouldn't result in any additional punishment (or even a look) from the NHL.

Pittsburgh went on to win the game, 6-3.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: November 21, 2011 11:53 pm
Edited on: November 22, 2011 10:43 am
 

Tracking Crosby: How he was utilized in debut



By: Adam Gretz

One of the biggest questions heading into Monday's Penguins and Islanders game was the number of minutes Sidney Crosby would play. The early estimates started off as low as 12 or 13, while it was pretty much a given that he wouldn't see anywhere near the 20 or 21 minutes he's averaged throughout his career.

When all was said and done, Crosby ended up playing a total of 15 minutes and 54 seconds over 21 shifts.

Here's how it looked:

Even-Strength Ice Time (11:29) -- When the Penguins acquired James Neal last season it was pretty much assumed that it was done for the purpose of eventually putting him with Crosby. And who knows, that may very well happen at some point. But with the way Neal has developed chemistry with Evgeni Malkin and Steve Sullivan, the Penguins are apparently in no hurry to break up a line that's working. So for the majority of his 21 shifts on Monday, Crosby centered the Penguins' top line between wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, as he has done throughout much of the previous two seasons. During those 11 minutes he recorded seven shots on goal (an incredible rate), scoring both of his goals, while also assisting on Brooks Orpik's second goal of the season. He also managed to draw a penalty when Milan Jurcina was sent off for cross-checking in the first period.

More on Sidney Crosby

Power Play Ice Time (4:23) -- During the Penguins' four power plays Bylsma responded each time by sending Crosby's unit out there to open the shift in the offensive zone. The Penguins power play, which struggled to score goals last season and through their opening round playoff loss to Tampa Bay, ended up finishing the night 1-for-4 with Crosby assisting on Malkin's power play tally at the 3:17 mark of the second period.

Faceoffs And Zone Starts -- When asked how conscious he was of where Crosby's shifts were starting, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma responded with, "I wasn't that conscious of that situation, more of the opponent he was playing against. However, he was winning a lot of his draws and When we could get him out there in that situation to win draws we did do that. He ends the game winning 15 of his draws, that's a lot. He picked up kind of where he left so we were using him in that situation."

Crosby ended the night winning 15 of his 21 faceoffs, a success rate of over 67 percent. This is one area of his game that Crosby made huge improvements in over the past two seasons and Bylsma utilized him in all three zones:

Offensive Zone Faceoffs: Seven (4-for-7 on faceoffs)
Neutral Zone Faceoffs: Six (5-for-6 on faceoffs)
Defensive Zone Faceoffs: Eight (6-for-8 on faceoffs)

Given that the Penguins were the home team and had the last line change, they were able to dictate who was out there against him for the most part, and did a good job of having him avoid New York's top defenseman, Mark Streit, as well as avoiding the Islanders' best defensive forward, Frans Nielsen, during even strength situations.

His most common opponent in the faceoff circle was Josh Bailey, whom he beat on four of eight draws. He was 5-for-5 against Nielsen, with all of them coming on the power play, and 4-for-6 against Marty Reasoner.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: November 19, 2011 10:05 am
Edited on: January 22, 2012 8:47 am
 

What's wrong with Paul Martin?

By: Adam Gretz

In an effort to improve their overall team defense prior to last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins made two significant investments on their blue line by signing two of the top free agent defenseman that were available on the open market -- Paul Martin, who had spent the previous six years of his career with the New Jersey Devils, and Zbynek Michalek coming off a five-year stint with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Combined, the Penguins committed a total of $45 million over five years to the two rearguards, and the results on the ice spoke for themselves in their first year with the team. The Penguins went from being 20th in the NHL in goals allowed during the 2009-10 season, all the way up to 6th best in 2010-11, while allowing nearly a half-goal fewer per game. That's no small improvement, and the additions of Martin and Michalek were a vital part of it.

Through the first 19 games of this season, Martin has had an up-and-down campaign and seems to be facing a growing amount of criticism from the Penguins' fan base for his minus-10 rating entering play on Saturday. That is currently the worst mark on the team and the second-worst mark in the NHL among all defensemen, ahead of only Colorado's Jan Hejda. When you're counting $5 million against the salary cap and near the bottom of the NHL in any category it's going to draw some attention, and hey, every fan-base needs its whipping boy.

So what's wrong with Paul Martin, and is he playing as poorly as the usually misleading plus/minus would suggest?

Nothing that can't be fixed, and not exactly.

So why is his plus/minus currently getting slaughtered? In its simplest terms, plus/minus, in general, and as honestly as it can be said, sucks as a useful measuring stick for the quality of play from a player, and offers little context in to what is going on with the player in question (who is he playing against? What situation is he playing in? Etc.). So let's try and add some context, if we can, and try to better understand his role with two main points that are, in a way, connected to one another.

1) The Penguins aren't scoring goals when Martin is on the ice

And yes, as a player that's on the ice, Martin does have to take some responsibility for this. But it's not going to continue. At least, it shouldn't be expected to continue.

During 5-on-5 play this season the Penguins have scored just four goals with Martin on the ice, which is an extremely low number, especially when you consider the number of minutes he plays. A lack of goals at even strength will obviously have a negative impact on a players rating, and this should not be expected to continue, for this reason: The Penguins, as a team, are shooting just a little over 2 percent when Martin is on the ice during 5-on-5 play, a rate that is unsustainably low over the course of the season.

Of the 536 players that have played a minimum of 10 games this season, only 12 of them have been on the ice for a lower shooting percentage. Look at it another way: If you go back to last season and take the players that played at least half the season in the NHL (40 games), the lowest on-ice shooting percentage belonged to Anaheim's George Parros at 2.54 percent, and he was one of only two players (the other was New Jersey's Adam Mair) that were on the ice for a team shooting percentage of below 3 percent. Over the past four years Martin's teams in Pittsburgh and New Jersey have shot no worse than 7.4 percent over the course of the season with him on the ice.

When you're talking about a player as talented as Martin, playing on a team that scores as often as the Penguins do, eventually, over time, these percentages are going to start work out for Martin, especially when the Penguins generate as many shots on goal as they do with him on the ice.

2) He's playing more minutes than any other player on the team, and he's being asked to play some of the "toughest" minutes on the team

Due to various injuries, including Michalek and Brooks Orpik, as well as a two-game suspension to Kris Letang, Martin has played significantly more minutes than any other player on the team. Entering Saturday he's at 464 overall minutes, 351 of which have come during even-strength play. Letang is the only other player on the team to crack the 300-minute mark at even-strength, while no other player is over 285. Not only is he playing more often than everybody else, he's playing in significantly more difficult situations.

You can tell a lot about a player, and what that player's coach thinks of him, by the situations he's put into. This season Dan Bylsma and his staff are giving Martin some of the tougher assignments in the NHL, and definitely the toughest assignments on the team. Consider his QualComp (Quality of Competition -- the higher the number, the tougher the competition) numbers and the limited number of Offensive Zone face-offs he's been on the ice for.

Assignments For Penguins Defensemen
Player Even-Strength Minutes QualComp Offensive Zone Starts % On-Ice Shooting % +/-
Paul Martin 351:22 .091 46.1% 2.40% -10
Kris Letang 333:16 .065 48.3% 8.09% +1
Deryk Engelland 285:02 .006 53.4% 8.63% +1
Matt Niskanen 274:22 -.034 56.9% 8.80% +5
Brooks Orpik 207:30 .172 48.3% 8.91% +2
Zbynek Michalek 180:40 .063 51.0% 2.22% -5
Ben Lovejoy 154:43 -.060 56.2% 8.43% +1

The only Penguins defensemen that's seen tougher competition is Orpik, while no other defensemen has started fewer shifts in the offensive zone.

Martin's game has definitely hit a bit of a rough patch over the past couple of weeks, and he's had his moments where he's been beat by opposing players one-on-one. But there's also a lot of things working against him right now, including some bad luck (hello, unsustainably low shooting percentage) and playing some of the heaviest minutes on the team, and playing a lot of them.

That's an extremely difficult role. Playing against the other team's best players and starting most of your shifts in your own zone (defensive zone faceoffs are dangerous) is a difficult task for any player, and will have an impact on your ability to score, as well as the other team's ability to score against you. Players that play the most minutes against the best players in the toughest spots will see the more goals scored against them and have a more difficult time scoring goals.

Take another look at the above table and look at the quality of players Matt Niskanen, for example, plays against, and the number of shifts he gets to start in the offensive zone. He's a team-best plus-five this season. No disrespect to Niskanen intended, but there isn't a coach or GM in the NHL that would take him over Martin, now, or at any other point. Give Martin those minutes and assignments, and vice versa, and see what their ratings look like.

I went back and looked at every goal that's been scored against the Penguins this season that would count against his plus/minus, and there's some pretty fascinating things in there. On at least two of them the Penguins were stopped on prime scoring chances at the other end of the ice before the play went back the other way and resulted in a goal at the other end. On one of them his defensive partner, Michalek, fell down on the opening face-off in Winnipeg which resulted in a flukey turnover -- and goal -- eight seconds into regulation.

None of this is likely to change the opinion of the person that takes his plus/minus rating as gospel, but if you think he's currently the second-worst defenseman in the NHL, or somehow not worth the cap hit to the Penguins, you're simply wrong.

The Penguins defense is a critical part of their success, and Martin is, and will continue to be, a key cog in that machine.

(Statistical data via BehindTheNet)

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: October 24, 2011 1:27 pm
Edited on: October 24, 2011 1:37 pm
 

Penguins lose Michalek for 4-6 weeks

By: Adam Gretz

Sooner or later all of these injuries for the Penguins have to stop, right? Head coach Dan Bylsma announced on Monday that defenseman Zbynek Michalek will be sidelined between four-to-six weeks due to a broken finger that he suffered while blocking a shot during their 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night.

Michalek signed a five-year, $20 million contract with the Penguins prior to last season and has been a steady presence on their blue line ever since. He's been one of the best shot-blockers in the NHL throughout his career, and along with the addition of Paul Martin, was a big factor in helping the Penguins reduce their goals against average by nearly half a goal per game during the 2010-11 season.

His injury is simply the latest one for a Penguins team that's been dealing with them all season, and it comes just two games after Brooks Orpik, perhaps their best defensive-defenseman, made his season debut last week. Orpik missed the first eight games of the season while he recovered from offseason surgery. The Penguins have also been playing without their captain and best player, Sidney Crosby, as he attempts to return from his concussion, while Evgeni Malkin, their second best player, and Tyler Kennedy have also missed significant time this season with injuries. Kennedy is out indefinitely with a concussion, while Malkin is still day-to-day.

With Michalek sidelined that likely means Ben Lovejoy will have an opportunity to return to the lineup, as he was the odd man out once Orpik made his debut and Kris Letang returned from his recent two-game suspension.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: October 21, 2011 3:47 pm
Edited on: October 21, 2011 3:51 pm
 

Penguins PK fuels fast start

CA1By: Adam Gretz

The incredible run of injuries that arguably helped derail the Pittsburgh Penguins season a year ago has found a way to continue during the start of the 2011-12 season. Playing without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Tyler Kennedy and Kris Letang (though, his recent absence was the result of a suspension) at various times, a group of players that adds up to nearly half of their salary cap commitments for the year, they have still managed to win five of their first nine games and earn at least a point in seven of them.

They've done all of this while being outscored during 5-on-5 play (18-14), and with a power play that has slumped down to a 10 percent rate over the past seven games, scoring on just three of its past 29 attempts. One of the most important aspects of their fast start has been a penalty killing unit that has been as dominant as any other group in the league. This isn't exactly a new development for the Penguins, as they finished with the top spot in the NHL last season at just over 86 percent. Through the first nine games this season they look to be even stronger.

Pittsburgh has found itself in a shorthanded situation 31 times this season and has only allowed one goal to the oppositions power play. That goal came during a 4-on-3 power play, typically considered a tougher penalty to kill than a traditional 5-on-4 due to the extra space the power play has to work with, in overtime during their loss to the Washington Capitals last Thursday.

Other than that? They've been perfect. Even more impressive is the fact the Penguins have already managed to score three shorthanded goals this season. They're not just stopping the other team's power play from scoring, they're flat out beating them on the scoreboard. At this point there is only one other team in the NHL on the "plus" side of the scoring while shorthanded, and that's Chicago which has a 2-1 edge during its 17 shorthanded situations.

When talking to opposing players after some of their recent games the one common theme everybody keeps bringing up is how aggressive the Penguins are on the penalty kill. And that's not really anything new. Every team says it wants to be aggressive, or take away time and space, or whatever other coaching cliche you can throw out there. But the Penguins seem to take it even further than most teams and never let up. Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell called them "relentless" following a performance that saw his team go 0-for-4 on the man advantage and surrender a shorthanded goal during a 4-2 loss last Tuesday.

Such an aggressive style while down a man has a potentially large payoff  -- like, say, a shorthanded goal -- but also carries some risk if you're not wisely picking and choosing your spots, which is something Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban brought up following Thursday's game -- they don't put themselves in bad situations.

"They pressure the right way and they pressure at the right times," Said Subban. "They play a smart game. They don't put themselves in trouble, they play smart, they limit your opportunities and they have guys that are willing to sacrifice."

Goaltenders generally get the most attention for a team's strong penalty kill, and Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson have both been excellent in shorthanded situations this season. But Pittsburgh also does a fantastic job of not allowing teams to even get an opportunity to create shots or establish any sort of presence in the offensive zone. Through nine games the Penguins are allowing just .768 shots per minute in shorthanded situations, a mark that is eighth-best in the NHL and well below the league average (at this point) of .857.

They're willing shot-blockers and do an excellent job of not allowing teams to gain a clean entry into the zone or get an opportunity to set up their power play, and that's a testament to the play of forwards like Jordan Staal, Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis and Matt Cooke, as well as defenseman Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. More than one Canadiens forward, including Brian Gionta, commented on Thursday night about his team's struggles to generate any speed through the middle of the ice

"I haven't seen many of their other games," said Gionta. "But tonight we had a hard time getting up through the neutral zone, and when you don't come clean through there and you're trying to win battles to get the puck back it's basically 50-50."

With players like Crosby and Malkin out of the lineup the Penguins aren't going to put up the type of offensive numbers typically seen from them, and they're going to have to keep grinding out wins. Completely shutting down the other team's power play is a good place to start.

Photo: Getty Images

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