Commentary

Pens' PK unit feeling the heat

Updated: April 20, 2012, 2:32 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Penguins coach Dan Bylsma couldn't have been more blunt: He needs his penalty killers to win them a game, preferably the one the Pens will play Friday night.

For a team that finished the regular season with the third-ranked penalty-killing unit in the league, you wouldn't think that would be such a tall order. Of course, if you thought that, you probably haven't watched much of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers.

To say the Penguins' penalty kill has stunk is to insult bad odors.

The Penguins' penalty killing is dead last in the playoffs, running at 40 percent efficiency against a Flyers power play that has had its way from start to finish.

The Flyers have scored at least one power-play goal in the first four games of this series and have collected nine power-play goals on just 15 opportunities.

Throw in the Flyers' three short-handed goals, and you can see why Bylsma feels that the chances of his team continuing along the comeback trail are tied inexorably to his penalty-kill unit getting it right. Or, at the very least, not getting it so wrong.

The challenge is that at this point, it's as much a mental game as it is a tactical game.

The Flyers aren't doing anything different than they have all season.

"We know what to expect," he said.

But the Flyers have scored off the rush, off scrambles, off set plays. They have owned the Pens, and if that continues, everyone knows this series will eventually tilt in favor of the Flyers, who own a 3-1 series lead heading into Game 5 on Friday night.

The Penguins are 0-6 in their past six postseason home games when they lose the special-teams battle. The Pens also are 6-2 in their past eight postseason games when they win that battle, including Tuesday's emphatic 10-3 victory that staved off elimination.

"That's the game. That's hockey in general. It's pretty mental," captain Sidney Crosby said Friday morning. "It's getting through that and being strong and believing. That's why it's so important to have those good habits, to know you've done all the groundwork all year to create those habits, because even when it seems like every mistake's going in, you still have that to go back on and you still have something to believe in. I think that's the case with our PK.

"Whether it's the power play or the PK, especially in big games, it's always about the next one. As frustrating as it is, sometimes you know that the next one could be the biggest one. I think our guys have a really good sense of what they need to do. We know that they're capable of killing big one."

Jordan Staal is one of the top defensive forwards in the game, and he said it's not about changing tactics but eliminating the mistakes that have killed the Penguins.

"It's just been little mistakes here and there, and they've done a good job of capitalizing on them. We just have to limit those mistakes, and we'll find a way," Staal said.

He did admit, though, that going through a rough patch can wear on you.

"It can become challenging when they're doing a good job and moving the puck well, but again, we've seen it done before all throughout the season that we know how to kill penalties," he said. "We just have to find our groove again."

Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette said both teams' power plays are populated by highly skilled players, and they gain confidence when things go their way. He noted that the number of power-play opportunities -- a combined 14 in Game 4 alone -- affects the rhythm of a game.

"I think what it does sometimes is take away from the 5-on-5 play, and the bench gets out of sync," he said.


Already nicked up on the blue line, the Flyers will be down another regular with Nicklas Grossmann unable to go in Game 5 because of an upper-body injury.

The solid blueliner, who has played well with defense partner Braydon Coburn against Pittsburgh's top line featuring scoring champ Evgeni Malkin, was involved in a couple of collisions in Game 4 with Malkin and Tyler Kennedy. Grossmann joins captain Chris Pronger, Andrej Meszaros and Marc-Andre Bourdon among the wounded Flyers defensemen.

Penguins defenseman Paul Martin also will be out of the lineup in Game 5. He missed Game 4 with injury as well.

Grossmann, picked up from Dallas before the trade deadline, will be replaced by rookie Erik Gustafsson.

Laviolette is confident the 24-year-old Gustafsson will handle his first NHL playoff game without missing a beat.

"Gus has done a terrific job for us all year," said Laviolette, who dresses only six defensemen. "He's a player who got sent back to the minors a couple of times, but it wasn't based on performance, it was just based on numbers.

"The minutes he's played, they've increased over time. He's got games where he's played 18, 20, 22 minutes. He's done a nice job for us. We have a lot of confidence in Gus and the way he plays the game."

Laviolette said his team has responded well to injuries.

"With regard to injury, I think our team has done an exceptional job this year," Laviolette said. "Guys moving up with their role, guys coming into the lineup that maybe have been out of the lineup a little bit, [call-ups] that we've needed. ... I think our team has really handled those situations well."

The Flyers endured "close to 450 man games" lost to injury, "so this isn't something new to us, where we're trying to figure something out," Laviolette said.