PITTSBURGH - It was special-teams play that earned the Penguins a 109-point regular season and Metropolitan Division title.
It was 5-on-5 play that won them their first playoff series.
After being not much better than average at even-strength during the regular season, the Penguins were at their best at it during the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Toward end of the series, we started to feel a lot better with the way we were able to manage the puck and work it down low and get in on the forecheck,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “When we sometimes get off our game is when our special teams are struggling, and we rely on that heavily. So for us, when we focus on beating teams 5-on-5 and playing well, it benefits our team.”
It did against Columbus. The Penguins held a 12-7 goal edge when each team was at full strength.
During none of the series' six games were the Penguins outscored in such situations, and they “won” 5-on-5 play during four of the six. The Penguins held a 4-1 edge at even strength during victories in Games 5 and 6 to close out the series.
“I thought the whole series we didn't play too bad 5-on-5,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “Certainly, there's things we need to improve on, but I thought in Games 5 and 6 for the majority of that time — except for the last 10 minutes in Game 6 — we really executed our gameplan to the fullest.”
Over the final two games, the Penguins outshot the Blue Jackets, 64-37, at even strength, including a dominating 39-20 during a 3-1 victory in Game 5. Generally, the final desperate push by Columbus late in Game 6 aside, the Penguins controlled puck possession and worked their forecheck and cycle in the offensive zone.
The only game of the series in which the Penguins did not have more even-strength shots than the Blue Jackets was Game 4, when they built an early three-goal lead and allowed Columbus to storm back for a 4-3 overtime victory.
Taking away that game, the Penguins out-shot the Blue Jackets, 151-108 at even strength during the series.
That the Penguins' strength was at 5-on-5 was a turnaround from the regular season, when their 51.2 percentage of 5-on-5 goals scored in their games ranked a middling 13th in the NHL.
The Penguins scored seven more goals than their opponents throughout the regular season at 5-on-5 compared to a plus-23 differential in special teams situations.
Against Columbus, they were a minus-2 in special teams.
“I think special teams are going to become more and more important (as the playoffs go on),” captain Sidney Crosby said. “But that being said, usually in the playoffs, 5-on-5 is pretty even. Team are so tightly matched, you're not going to see a lot of room, and you're not going to see a ton of chances 5-on-5, so if you can get up 5-on-5 or be on the plus side, you're putting yourself in a good position.”
Typically, the playoffs feature fewer power-play opportunities per game, a phenomenon that threatened to work against the Penguins after finishing the regular season with the NHL's top power play and No. 5 penalty kill. They were the only team to be top-five in both.
Even more troubling to the Penguins was they had a negative even-strength goal differential after the Olympic break.
In the first round, though, those concerns were allayed.
What's more, strong play at even strength can work to benefit the special teams.
“(Five-on-five) is always an emphasis,” Scuderi said. “You don't know how many power plays you're going to get in a game, but you can control your 5-on-5 play. If you're playing the offensive zone most of the time, chances are you're going to draw some penalties.”
(Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.)