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Pittsburgh Penguins’ PK Unit Keeping Team Afloat

(Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the more enigmatic teams in the NHL this season. Despite having all-world talent up front, they’re managing just 2.22 goals per game — tied for 25th with the Maple Leafs. Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs. And their power play really isn’t helping matters either. They can run Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang all out there at the same time, yet they’re clicking at just a 16.5 percent rate. That’s good for 23rd in the league, behind the Maple Leafs. Yes, the Toronto Mapl– oh wait, already used that bit.

The point is they seem to be a little offensively challenged at the moment. And that’s a problem for a club whose roster was constructed to score goals. But it hasn’t really stopped them from winning hockey games. At least not yet. Pittsburgh stumbled out of the gate to an 0-3 record, but has gone 13-5-2 since then.

On the surface, that doesn’t add up. Crosby’s five goals put him on pace for just under 20 this year — something’s he’s never even come close to doing in a full season. Entering the 2015-16 campaign, he averaged 0.48 goals per game for his entire career. That works out to 39.5 goals per 82 games played. It doesn’t make much logical sense that the team would win more as his production goes down.

Crosby isn’t the only one whose scoring stats are down, he just always seems to be the lightning rod for criticism — whether he’s struggling or not — so why not start there? Kessel (seven goals) hasn’t really gotten rolling yet either, and Malkin (11) has only recently caught fire. Beyond that trio, only Patric Hornqvist (four goals) has netted more than three goals all season. So much for secondary scoring.

Again though, the Pens continue to win. For the most part, at least. And, as a result, they sit fourth in the Metropolitan Division entering play on Tuesday. Much of the success is clearly due to the strong play of Marc-Andre Fleury in net. And — while it’s probably costing them goals and might even be hampering their ability to deliver many highlight reel plays in the attack zone — Mike Johnston’s system is certainly helping to keep the opposition off the scoreboard too. Results are results.

The penalty kill has quietly played a key role as well. The Penguins are getting the job done while shorthanded 84.0 percent of the time, tied with the New York Rangers for fifth in the NHL. And, considering they finished third in that category a year ago (84.8 percent), it seems likely that this is actually a part of their team identity and not just a phase they’re going through. A 23-game sample size still leaves room for considerable fluctuation. A 105-game sample size? Not so much.

On top of that, Pittsburgh is actually one of the more penalized clubs in the league (also a trend that has continued from 2014-15), having spent 131:08 on the kill already this season. That’s the seventh-highest total in the league, and makes the ability to get out of those stretches unscathed downright vital. It’s been working though.

So who’s getting the job done for the Pens on the PK? Matt Cullen leads the way with 66:11 spent on the ice shorthanded, and five others — Ben Lovejoy (63:18), Rob Scuderi (61:18), Letang (60:00), Ian Cole (57:22) and Nick Bonino (57:09) — aren’t far behind. Then there’s Pascal Dupuis (39:02) and Eric Fehr (37:57), who haven’t racked up quite as many minutes, but have also missed time this season due to injury.

When they’re out there though, they’re effective. In fact, Fehr scored a shorthanded goal in each of his first two games with Pittsburgh. The point is, seven of those eight players are far from being household names, yet they’ve been pivotal in a relatively unheralded role for the Penguins. Yes, it would be nice if the big guns up front were scoring at ease, as they’ve done in the past. But there are other ways to win hockey games. Scratching and clawing to keep the other team from lighting the lamp can be an effective way to grind out two points too. And that’s something Johnston’s squad has been able to do at times this season.

Or, you know, they could just get more goals like this, that might work too.

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