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By Mike DeFabo

PITTSBURGH — Last offseason, when the Penguins coaching staff huddled to discuss areas in which the team could improve, the focus quickly shifted to special teams.

With assistant coach Mike Vellucci in the fold last year, the Penguins implemented a high-pressure kill that ideally puts opponents under stress up the ice and also at the blue line. The point was to limit zone time and thus limit scoring chances.

However, the strategy and the execution often weren’t on the same page. The Penguins finished last season with the NHL’s fifth-worst penalty kill, snuffing out just 77.4% of opposing power plays.

“Our penalty kill has to get better,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said sternly during training camp. “There’s no question about that.”

Well, for most of the season, the Penguins penalty kill wasn’t just better, it was historically great.

The Penguins squashed 86.4% of opposing power plays through the first 78 games of the 82-game season, putting them on pace for one of the best years in franchise history.

Then, a regression began that’s continued into the playoffs.

Pittsburgh’s PK coughed up six goals over the final four games of the regular season. Following the final game of the regular season, when Sullivan was asked about the positives the team could build upon, he instead pinpointed the penalty kill as a major area that needed to be improved.

But the trend has continued. Through two games of the first-round series against the Rangers, the Penguins have surrendered two more goals.

“We have to improve and get better at it,” Sullivan said on Friday. “That's on the coaching staff. We've got to give these guys a game plan that helps them have success. We're going to go to work to try to do that.”

The Rangers power play presents a significant challenge. It boasts a Norris Trophy winner distributing the puck with deception from the blue line in Adam Fox, a perennial Hart Trophy candidate coming off the left flank in Artemi Panarin, a 52-goal scorer in Chris Kreider at the net front, and Mika Zibanejad ready to uncork a massive one-timer. It’s no wonder the Rangers finished the season with the NHL’s fourth-best power play at 25.2%.

For Sullivan, the key to neutralizing all those threats is to not let them get into the offensive zone in the first place. That starts with the initial draw, a big reason the Penguins often send two centers out (such as Teddy Blueger and Jeff Carter) in case one gets kicked out.

“I think our penalty kills is at its best when we win faceoffs,” Sullivan said. “We get 200-foot clears. We get the puck down the ice. We make the entries difficult. And when you can do those three things really well, you limit zone time.

“One of the challenges we've had to this point with respect to the Rangers is we haven't won a lot of faceoffs. We haven't got a lot of clears, and so they've had they got a significant amount of zone time.”

‘Playoff Jake’

After scoring just three playoff goals in the last three years combined, the Jake Guentzel that Penguins fans expect to see this time of year is back. Just two games into the series, he leads all scorers with three goals.

“It's nice whenever you can get off to a good start,” Guentzel said. “But it's only two games. You know it's going to be a long series and you just want to be at your best. For me, I'm just trying to play the best that I can to help this team win.”

That he’s done often in Pittsburgh.

Since Guentzel entered the league as a rookie in 2016-17, he’s racked up 29 goals. Only Brayden Point (37) and Alex Ovechkin (30) have more over that span. In terms of even-strength goals, no player has more.

“Regular season Jake is terrific,” Sullivan said. “I think ‘Playoff Jake’ is a whole other level. I think that's what makes him a special player that he is. He's a really competitive kid. And he's shown an ability to play his best in a high -takes environment. He's a Stanley Cup champion and was a big part of it.”

Injury updates

Penguins backup goalie Casey DeSmith underwent successful core muscle surgery on Friday. He’s out the remainder of the postseason. Meanwhile, Tristan Jarry has yet to skate since breaking a bone in his foot on April 14.

Elsewhere on the injury front, top-six winger Rickard Rakell took a step toward a return. He skated with skills coach Ty Hennes for the first time after absorbing a high, hard hit to the head area in Game 1.

Defenseman Brian Dumoulin did not participate in the optional practice. After missing Thursday’s Game 2, he’s considered day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

Jason Zucker, who took warmups ahead of Game 2 but did not play, will be a game-time decision for Game 3.

For the Rangers, coach Gerard Gallant told reporters in New York that alternate captain and forward Barclay Goodrow will “probably not” be available the remainder of the series due to a lower-body injury.

Back in the ’Burgh

For the first time since the pandemic began, the Penguins will welcome a packed house to PPG Paints Arena for a playoff game.

“At home, we're going to need our fans,” Blueger said. “Hopefully they bring it and make it tough on the Rangers like [fans at Madison Square Garden] did for us. It can make a huge difference in momentum swings. Just giving the guys energy in the right time, you definitely feel that support.

“Especially after last year, going through it with no fans — even when they first allowed a couple thousand in, it felt like a crazy difference. It felt like a full building with almost 2,000 in there. Obviously with the full building, I think it's something we're not going to take for granted anymore after that experience.”

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Dive Deeper:
Rangers bounce back with Game 2 victory over Penguins to even series
NEW YORK — Rangers fans waited five years to see playoff hockey again at Madison Square Garden and they’ll get…
Ron Cook: Penguins' thrilling Game 1 win vs. Rangers had everything
PITTSBURGH — The Penguins dressed 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders Tuesday night for Game 1 of their first-round…
Danton Heinen's goal gives Pens 2-1 series lead against Rangers
PITTSBURGH — The Penguins had finally toppled the Shesterkin wall. Approximately 18,000 arms already ached from waving yellow rally towels…
2 empty-net goals by Ilya Mikheyev seal Toronto’s 5-2 win, giving the Leafs a 2-1 series lead
TAMPA, Fla. — The Lightning cut a three-goal deficit to one in the third period before allowing two empty-net goals…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Bruins earn first win against Hurricanes
With their season on the line, the Bruins needed their big boys to step up and make a difference for…
Evgeni Malkin's goal in third overtime lifts Penguins over Rangers, 4-3
NEW YORK – This series is far from over. But the Penguins don’t look done yet.
Get all your news in one place