Pressure Makes Diamonds

The Pittsburgh Penguins PK is an odd beast. While harboring some elite PK talent in the 2016-2017 season including Carl Hagelin, Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino, they only managed to finish 20th in the league for regular season PK%, at a measly 79.8% and giving up a total of 52 PP goals against, the 8th worst in the league. The Penguins, despite the speed and talent on their PK, only managed to score 5 SH goals, tied with 8 other teams for 15th in the league.

This disappointing season in regards to penalty killing, while also losing both of their main PK centers to free agency, lead to assistant coach Jacques Martin and head coach Mike Sullivan making some adjustments on how the penalty kill is going to be executed, modifying their systems and their strategies to capitalize on the speed of the players they’ll be putting out in penalty killing roles.

With Sullivan having been quoted as wanting a pressure based penalty killed by The Athletic’s Jesse Marshall (whose work I would seriously recommend if you’re into your Xs and Os), the Penguins deployed 6 PK forward regularly. Those forwards being Hagelin, Greg McKegg, Carter Rowney, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson and Tom Kuhnhackl, we see a collection of incredibly fast hockey players who are perfect for a pressure based system.

The Penguins PK

In contrast to the traditional box system most teams tend to execute, the Penguins’ employ a diamond alignment with their penalty killers. We’ll look at some stills from the game against St Louis from opening night to illustrate the diamond and the use of pressure, along with a potential downfall.

Picture 1In our first picture, after a Penguins win of the faceoff, you start to see the formation of the diamond begin to take shape. As Ian Cole receives the puck off the faceoff win and Matt Hunwick‘s bunt back to him, Hunwick is now a de facto winger on the strong side boards who attempts to subtly interfere and pick the pressure from the St Louis winger. McKegg becomes accountable for the center is cleared, with Hagelin attempting to obscure the path of the weakside winger who is attempting to prevent the clearing attempt.

Picture 2
In Picture 2, we begin to see how the diamond integrates with the pressure identity the Penguins are trying to establish. After Cole was forced to bump the puck up the boards and the Blues recovered, take particular note of how far up the boards Hunwick has come to apply pressure. With Hunwick almost at the top of the circles, McKegg applies significant pressure onto the point man, forcing him to move the puck. He can choose to try and go across the blue line, or down the wall. Going across the blueline is what the Blues pointman chooses, but is the more risky option and a slight hesitation with the puck gives the Penguins PKer a great opportunity to force the puck out of the zone.

Picture 3
In Picture 3, after the puck has transitioned to the other point, the Penguins transition the pressure from the tip of the diamond (that being the center) to the right point of the diamond (the other F at this point). The concept does not change, however, with the non-base members of the diamond attempting to take away the most serious threats with the pressure player pushing hard at the puck carrier with the idea that it will force them into a quick decision, which may not always be the best decision.

When It Works 1.jpg
In the above picture, we see the diamond creating pressure on the strongside wall, putting 4 players into an area where the Blues only have 3. The obvious outlet for the Blues player on the wall between Carter Rowney and Brian Dumoulin is to turn towards the center of the ice and skate to the faceoff dot. However, by skating into the middle of the diamond is exactly what the player at the base of the diamond is waiting for.

When It Works 2
As the Blues player turns off the wall, a stick check from Rowney interrupts his puck handling and gives time for the base of the diamond, the ever eager Kris Letang to apply heavy pressure, taking the puck and starting an odd man rush in the other direction and a scoring chance. This is a perfect example of the diamond allowing the Penguins to apply pressure, forcing an opposition player into a known spot where the Penguins will jump upon them and force a turnover.

When It Fails 1.jpg
A carbon copy situation of the beginning of the play when Letang generated an odd man rush, the Penguins again use their diamond to collapse against the puck carrier and his support. This jam up against the board continues for a while, and you see Scott Wilson in his first game as a full time penalty killer turning his head to locate the backdoor defenseman, his most serious threat. Everything looks great so far.
When It Fails 2.jpg
While this angle isn’t great, it shows you the breakdown in coverage and what leads to a PP goal against. Wilson, who in first picture of this set was at the faceoff dot, has sagged below the point having seen the puck move away from the biggest mass of players and to the sticks of Hunwick and Tage Thompson of the Blues. Expecting the puck to begin jammed between these two players, Wilson begins to move to a position where can support Hunwick in a battle against the much larger Thompson
When It Fails 3.jpg
Our final point on this article, and on this breakdown, you see the puck has travelled from the board battle, off Hunwick’s stick and through the circle, where Wilson was previously occupying. The inherent risk of a pressure based PK system is that occasionally, you take risks that don’t pay off. Wilson’s decision to sag below the circle, expecting an additional board battle to commence, is a risk of sorts and led to the backdoor D receiving the puck. Don’t mistake this play for an error on Wilson, but rather the inherent risk of telling players to pressure when there is an opportunity to do so.

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