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There has been a great deal of focus lately on the injuries suffered by star players of the Pens. Many fans remember the injury-derailed playoff runs of the past and fret the team will never have its full complement of players. Will Sidney Crosby be ready for playoffs? Will Malkin’s shoulder prevent him being 100%? Can James Neal make a swift recovery from his concussion? When will Paul Martin return?

There’s good reason to believe that the answers to those questions are generally positive and will not adversely affect the team’s playoff chances. The team has a 7 point cushion with 6 games to play in the Eastern Conference. The Pens will have an opportunity to rest veteran players for the playoffs down the stretch, as well as get depth players like Robert Bortuzzo and Joe Vitale an extra game or two to prepare themselves. Players returning from injury will have an opportunity to get some minutes to knock the rust off.

With the team appearing to be finally getting healthy right as the playoffs near, the one major Penguin weakness continues to be the penalty kill. The penalty kill takes on paramount importance in the playoffs, in my opinion, even more so than the oft-discussed power play. Goals are very difficult to come by at even strength in tight-checking playoff hockey. Failing to prevent them with a man in the box is a recipe for disaster. There will always be situations like a key penalty kill late in a 3rd period of a tight game. Stifling the opposing team’s power play allows a team to put a strangle-hold on a seven game series.

The Penguins sit 25th in the NHL at 78.9% and 27th in the NHL in shorthanded goals against per 60 minutes at 7.51. They are 20th in shots against per 60 minutes at 49.9. They have been particularly porous lately, killing only 9 of their last 16 penalties, twice giving up 3 power play goals in a game in their last five games.

While the chief concern shorthanded is preventing goals, many strong teams find a way to manufacture some offense while shorthanded. The Pens have failed miserably in this regard. They have scored down a man only once all season. They are second to last in shots for per 60 minutes shorthanded with only 4.0, and have registered only 15 shots total (in 223:23 SH-TOI). Fenwick For Percentage and Corsi For Percentage are closely related ratios that measure how many shot attempts a team generates versus how many shot attempts it allows (Fenwick does not include shots blocked). The Penguins rank dead last in the league in both ratios. In short, the Pens are losing the puck possession and territory battle while shorthanded.

The problem does not seem to be a personnel issue. The Pens do have a number of “PK specialists” in their forward corps. Brandon Sutter, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, and Craig Adams come to mind. These are responsible forwards who are well-regarded for their defensive awareness. On defense, Brooks Orpick has had a difficult year, but his long history suggests he may return to form. The loss of Paul Martin is significant, but the addition of the physical Douglas Murray to clear the front of the net somewhat offsets that. The point is, the Pens have the skaters to kill penalties at a much higher rate than they have shown.

So what is the problem? Part of the problem is their goaltending has been much better at even strength than shorthanded. The other part is systematic and tactical.

Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun have been near lights out at even strength this season. Their combined 5-on-5 save percentage of .934 ranks 3rd in the league. Shorthanded, their combined save percentage only ranks 26th in the league at .850. Of course, the quality of scoring chances are better when a team is on the power play, and one would expect a significant drop-off in save percentage comparing even strength and shorthanded. But compared to the rest of the league, the Pens goaltending has suffered to a greater degree on the penalty kill than any other team in the league. The goaltending simply has to be sharper shorthanded.

The tactical explanation is the Pens PK seems to give up the neutral zone and their own blue line to advancing forwards much too easily. They allow teams to gain the zone with possession too often. They seem too eager to get set-up in the traditional “passive box” penalty kill formation.

Forcing teams to give up possession of the puck is key, even if the opposing forward successfully dumps the puck in. The forwards need to better angle oncoming forwards to the boards to limit their options and passing lanes. The Pens should be more aggressive during the first 5-7 seconds a team enters their zone but before they can set up their cycle or power play. Teams are establishing possession in the offensive zone too easily. The penalty killers should be hawking the puck hard for those first few seconds. During the first few moments the puck enters the zone, the Pens need to be more aggressive in taking away opponents time and space. Force them to make a decision with the puck quicker than they’d like to. Force a “secondary dump” when a forward crosses the blue line with the puck, but is angled off to the boards and usually responds by just throwing the puck behind the net. Or better, force a mistake or a turnover. If a team does successfully establish controlled possession, only then should the penalty killers pull back into the box.

Once an opposing power play has set up, too often the opposing power play quarterbacks operate without harassment. The PK forwards don’t want to get caught chasing too far up high, but a little more pressure is needed. Along the same vein, the point men have little fear about the Pens going the other way shorthanded, because the Pens do not pursue shorthanded chances as strongly as they could. That would push the opposing defensemen a little higher in the offensive zone and cause them to worry more about being caught flat-footed.

The catastrophic meltdown of the penalty kill in last year’s playoffs remains omnipresent in the conscience of this Penguins team. Dan Byslma has been able to solve the problems with the Pens power play this season, but the problems on the PK remain unresolved with only six games remaining. Any hopes for a long playoff run rest upon the Pens fixing their issues shorthanded.