While the Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play hasn’t been bad through 22 games, sporting the 12th-best conversion rate (20.5 percent) in a 30-team league is nonetheless below par for a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, among others.
With the purpose of optimizing his top power-play unit, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma made a personnel adjustment for Friday’s morning skate, replacing defenseman Kris Letang with fellow blueliner Paul Martin in man-advantage drills.
Martin has been part of Pittsburgh’s No. 1 fivesome before, but Letang has manned a point spot for most of the past three years. Although Martin doesn’t have the same athleticism as Letang, he has displayed a knack for smartly distributing the puck – an ability that is paramount when skating alongside big-time scorers.
Martin was the top power-play point man in Friday’s practice as the Penguins (14-8-0, 28 points) prepared for an evening visit from the New York Islanders (8-11-3, 19 points). Crosby, Malkin, Neal and net-front specialist Chris Kunitz joined Martin, while Letang was on the second PP unit with Matt Niskanen, Jussi Jokinen, Brandon Sutter and Beau Bennett.
Another advantage to having Martin on the No. 1 power play is his left-handed shot. Unlike the righty Letang, Martin can more easily feed forehand passes to the right side of the ice for one-time shots by fellow lefties Crosby, Malkin and Neal. Former Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, another southpaw shooter, excelled in a similar role for many years on the Pittsburgh point.
The Islanders, tied for last place in the Metropolitan Division with Columbus, have the NHL’s worst penalty-killing percentage at 71.6, a weakness that a more efficient Penguins power play should be able to exploit following the 7:05 p.m. faceoff at Consol Energy Center.
New York defeated the first-place Penguins 4-3 on Oct. 25 in Pittsburgh, rallying for three third-period goals against rookie netminder Jeff Zatkoff. With the Pens scheduled for another game Saturday in Montreal, Bylsma confirmed Zatkoff will get a second crack at the Isles on Friday.
Pittsburgh’s No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has started (and finished) 19 of 22 games thus far, so this seems to be an opportune time to give him a rest before his presumed start against the Canadiens.
The 26-year-old Zatkoff hasn’t been spectacular in his first NHL season, but he has been better than his stats (.865 save percentage, 3.36 goals-against average) would indicate. His previous appearance was a 3-0 win in Columbus on Nov. 1, his first victory and shutout at this level.