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The power play that doomed the Penguins in Game 3

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer

Daniel Alfredsson took advantage of the Penguins strategy in Game 3. (USATSI)
Daniel Alfredsson took advantage of the Penguins strategy in Game 3. (USATSI)

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With one minute to play on Sunday night the Pittsburgh Penguins were lucky enough to get a power play when Ottawa's Erik Karlsson was sent off for slashing.

Even better for the Penguins? They also had a one-goal lead at the time.

I have no idea what the actual win probability is for a team in that situation (whether it be the team on the power play and winning, or the team that is shorthanded and losing) but I have to imagine that it is laughably lopsided in favor of the team that has the man advantage. So lopsided, in fact, that I would guess that if a team was given that situation 100 times it would probably go on to win the game in 99 of them, if not all 100.

On Sunday night the Penguins were that one team that didn't win, surrendering a shorthanded goal to Daniel Alfredsson in the final minute, and then losing in double overtime on Colin Greening's game-winning goal.

You can sit around and analyze the X's and O's as to which player missed an assignment or was caught out of position on Alfredsson's goal all you want. But what really doomed the Penguins in that game started happening long before Alfredsson snuck in behind their defense and deflected a perfect pass from Milan Michalek past Tomas Vokoun to force overtime.

Whether it was something strategic or poor execution, the way the Penguins went about playing that power play was a losing approach. They were playing not to lose instead of playing to win. And it ended up costing them a game.

The Penguins didn't need to score a goal on that power play. They didn't even really need to take a shot on goal. All they had to do was hold on to the puck and not give a desparate Senators team any opportunity to tie the game.

First, let's consider some numbers here.

During the 2013 season there were only 93 shorthanded goals scored in the NHL on 4,785 shorthanded situations. That's only 1.9 percent of the time. Eleven of those goals were scored into an empty net, meaning that teams scored a shorthanded goal with a goalie in the opposing net just 1.7 percent of the time.

(For what it's worth, teams only scored a shorthanded goal on 2 percent of their shorthanded situations in 2011-12).

That alone stacks the odds against the Senators. But those shorthanded goals took into account all situations. What about in the final minute of regulation when you're losing and trying to tie the game?

Of those 93 shorthanded goals only nine of them came in the final minute of regulation. Eight of them were scored by a team that was already winning, with all eight of those goals going into one of the aforementioned empty nets. The only team that scored a shorthanded goal in the final minute of regulation that was losing at the time was the Buffalo Sabres (a Cody Hodgson goal). There were 35 seconds to play in their game back on March 5. They were losing by two goals and went on to lose by one.

So, based on the way the 2013 season was played the odds of the Ottawa Senators scoring a goal in that situation were pretty close to zero.

But they went and scored one anyway and managed to keep themselves in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series with a huge win. A loss in that game would have put them in a 3-0 series hole and we already know the history of teams trying to overcome such a deficit (it's only happened three times in NHL history). A win by Pittsburgh would have pretty much been lights out for the Senators this season.

So how in the hell did they tie the game with the deck so seemingly stacked against them? And perhaps more importantly, how in the hell did the Penguins allow it to happen?

Here is the entire sequence again, just for reference.

Coach Dan Bylsma called it a "possession power play" for the Penguins, which I'm guessing means they simply wanted to hold on to the puck and run out the clock. Basically the NHL's answer to a quarterback taking a knee in the victory formation.

And that's exactly the right idea given the circumstances. But nothing about the approach or execution seemed to be done with the intention of gaining possession, something the Penguins never actually did.

One minute of the power play passed before Alfredsson scored to tie the game. During that minute, the Penguins played exactly zero seconds in the offensive zone with the puck on their sticks. They actually held possession of the puck (in any zone) for only 25 seconds, with most of that time coming in their own zone when Kris Letang was standing behind his own net trying to run out the clock (and that was a good play).

By comparison, the Senators had the puck in their possession for 27 seconds, including five seconds in the offensive zone (most of that offensive zone time came on the rush that Alfredsson scored on).

Things started to go wrong for the Penguins right off the initial faceoff when Sidney Crosby lost the draw to Kyle Turris. The Senators were able to clear the zone and force the Penguins back into their own end to retrieve the puck.

And that's where things started to get weird. Or perhaps more accurately, that's where the Penguins started to lose the game.

On the Penguins' ensuing rush, Evgeni Malkin dumped the puck into the zone and there was almost no forecheck or pressure applied by the Penguins. I can understand a team not wanting to be overly aggressive here. Again, you don't need to score a goal, and being too aggressive can lead to a mistake and perhaps a chance going the other way. But while there's no use for being too aggressive and risking a mistake, there's also no use in being overly passive and allowing the Senators to regain possession, exit the zone, and start back up the ice.

The latter is exactly what happened.

As Kyle Turris gains the offensive zone on his rush he loses the puck and gives it back to Malkin. Here, Malkin and Letang make a very smart play -- perhaps the smartest play Pittsburgh made on this entire power play -- and skated behind their own net with possession of the puck and simply stood there, killing off 14 seconds until a Senators forechecker finally forced the Penguins to make a play.

Chris Kunitz then carries the puck up the ice and dumps it into the zone. He is the only forechecker that enters the offensive zone.

Even though the Senators are outnumbered 5-to-4 on the ice, they outnumber the Penguins 3-to-1 in this isolated situation. All Chris Phillips (No. 4 in red) has to do is make a simple play off the boards and he has two teammates (and no Penguins) sitting right there to regroup and start their rush up the ice. It also gives them an opportunity to get goalie Craig Anderson off the ice to gain an extra attacker and make it a 5-on-5 situation.

Once the Senators start moving up the ice, four of the five Penguins are already standing back behind their own red line. Three are already in the defensive zone. They're giving the Senators the puck, and giving them a chance to get up the ice.

Which team has the power play again? Believe it or not, it's the team in white. Stunning.

Obviously, the Penguins never gained possession, there was a terrible defensive breakdown after all of this in front of the net, and the Senators tied the game before going on to win in overtime.

One minute completely changed a series and kept a team that was close to being all but out of it, in it.

The Penguins had a chance to slam the door shut on the Senators' season on this power play. All they did was allow the Senators to stick their foot in front of it and keep it cracked open.

Blame Malkin all you want for losing his man just before the goal, but the Penguins lost this game long before that with the way they played the entire power play. They ended up with the result they deserved. It's only one game, and the Penguins still lead the series. It's hard to go up 3-0 in a playoff series and still leading 2-1 isn't the worst position to be in. But the opportunity was there. If they bounce back and win Game 4 on Wednesday night this play might not matter much in the grand scheme of things, but given the personnel the Penguins have on their power play and the ability they have to control the puck, this was a really odd approach.

Oh, and in case you wanted to see what a possession power play looks like to end in a game, check this one out...

 
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