Penguins notes: net-front battles come to the forefront in tight series

“I just think it’s the nature of the game at this time of year,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s one way to manufacture offense. You’ve got to go to the net. You’ve got to impede the goalie’s sight lines. You’ve got to try to make his mobility difficult.”

This series, the Islanders have done everything they can to get in goalie Tristan Jarry’s grill.

The Game 3 line brawl that landed all 10 players in the box started when the Islanders pushed Jarry all the way into the net with a stick. In the third period of the same game, Jarry was looking at the referees for a penalty after getting tangled with Casey Cizikas on a goal the Penguins at least briefly considered challenging. And in Game 4, Kris Letang bumped Anthony Beauvillier into Jarry. By the time the goalie got square, the puck was in his net.

“It’s not anything that’s revolutionary,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to do as good a job as we can at getting box outs and seals and try to give Tristan an opportunity to see the puck and find the puck. We continue to preach that to our guys. We’re working on those details.”

To this point, the Islanders have been getting bodies and pucks to the front of the net frequently and effectively. According to Sportlogiq, 10.3% of the Islanders’ shots on net have been screened. That’s the third-highest percentage among playoff teams.

At the same time, the Penguins have allowed the third-most shots from the slot (25.4 per game) among playoff teams and the second-most rebounds attempts from the slot (2.89). As the series continues, the battles in front of the net will continue to be crucial on both ends of the rink.

“[It would be beneficial] if we can box them out early and try to stop the traffic from getting there,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said on Saturday. “We’ve been fronting a lot, and I think if we can establish the box-outs, especially out of the corner, it can help us.

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“We have to fight for the net front just as much as they do. We have to keep grinding.”

Islanders limiting power play opportunities

The Islanders have followed a two-pronged process to become one of the NHL’s best penalty-killing teams.

First, they stayed out of the box better than any team in the league during the regular season, with just 223 penalty minutes throughout the 56-game season. Then, in the instances they were in the box, the Islanders maintained an aggressive defensive style that squashed any chances. Only five teams in the league had a better penalty killing percentage (83.7%).

Four games into the series, the Penguins have experienced both sides of that formula.

In Game 4, the Penguins got just 21 seconds of power play time, while committing six penalties of their own. By the time Pittsburgh entered the zone and began to set up shop, they were sending two guys to the box themselves and switching out special teams units.

Over an entire stretch of the series, the Penguins are just 1-for-8 on the power play with seven total shots. Even those shots have been mostly from the outside, other than Jeff Carter’s game-tying goal in Game 3. The Penguins will enter Game 5 still looking for their first power play shot from the inner slot, according to data from Sportlogiq.

“They block a lot of shots,” said forward Jared McCann, who has split time on both units this series. “They’re always in the shooting lane. They’re a hard team to get pucks to the net against. We have to find a way to do that, whether it’s spread them out or working in closer, small areas.”

In addition to finding ways to get the puck on net more frequently from better areas of the ice, the Penguins can improve their face offs and zone entries with the man advantage. Entering Game 5, the Penguins’ controlled entry success rate was just 50% (15th out of 16 teams) and they had won just 22.2% of their offensive zone draws on the power play (16th out of 16 teams).

“We know going in that the islanders have a real good penalty kill,” Sullivan said. “They’ve very aggressive. They’re aggressive all over the rink. They’re going to put pressure on us. We’re going to have to be able to support the puck and make sure that we have people in the right places to support the puck so that we can beat the pressure.”

Something coming?

Through four games, Jake Guentzel led the Penguins in shots, shot attempts and scoring chances. But, as he enters Game 5, a skater who netted 23 goals in 56 regular season games is still looking for his first tally of the postseason.

“Obviously, we’d like him to find the back of the net,” Sullivan said. “There’s no doubt about that. But as a team, as a coaching staff, as a group of players, all we can control is the process. That’s what we look at. They’ve had a fair amount of looks. Jake has had a number of opportunities. The puck hasn’t gone into the net for him to this point. … Our feeling is that if he just stays with it, he’ll find the back of the net.”

‘Ignore the noise’

Before the series even began, Sullivan began priming his team for the “ebbs and flows” of a seven-game series.

“We’re going to win a game and there’s going to be all kinds of praise,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to lose a game and there’s going to be all kinds of doubters. For us, we’re just going to focus on the task at hand. We’re going to try to ignore the noise and learn from every experience that we go through.

“We’re playing against a tough opponent. We knew that going in. We knew it was going to be a hard series. Here we are in the middle of it.”

Around the boards

The lines remained unchanged at puck drop on Monday. … Sullivan had no new updates on backup Casey DeSmith, who remains sidelined with a lower-body injury. … Jarry was the first goalie off the ice at morning skate and will be in net for his fifth consecutive playoff game.


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