Do the Penguins have a Discipline Problem? My Column: by @wutendeskind

There are two experiences I find equally frustrating as a hockey viewer.




The first is what happened to the Pens against the Rangers last year: dominant possession and scoring chances rendered moot by a hot goalie. The second is something that feels like it happens all too often: the Penguins lose their cool and spend the game killing penalties (like yesterday's game against the Red Wings) or are so thrown off by their own antics that they never, uh, get to their game (read: the 2012 playoff series against the Flyers).

The Penguins have a pretty commanding lead in the league on PIM per game, with 14.5 (Winnipeg, the second-place team, averages 14.0 PIM per game). Just think about that for a second. The Penguins are averaging one game misconduct and two and a half minor penalties per game. That's too much time shorthanded for a team that rides or dies by their goalie's unsustainably high shorthanded save percentage to bail them out of penalties. This also isn't a problem that's getting better: The Penguins averaged 10.1 PIM per game last season, which was good for 21st in the league.

This article is not to suggest that Penguins are unique in having undisciplined moments or games. They are not. Most teams have games where it looks like the opposition is so thoroughly in their heads that they're dictating the other team's actions. But losing your focus on the game to think about revenge doesn't have to be unique to the Pens for it to be something the Pens should work on. In this article, I seek to outline the two areas where I feel the Pens could use the most disciplinary improvement.

1. Against teams in the Metropolitan Division.

The Penguins must play more disciplined hockey within their own division, not only because of the impact this has on the standings, and the fact that you play teams in your division more often than any other, but also because the Penguins have played some of their most penalized games this season against the Metro division.

If we look at how many times per game the Penguins put their team on the penalty kill, to control for some of the misconducts that are raising their PIM/game, the Penguins have 3.92 penalty kill opportunities per game against the Metro but only 3.26 opportunities against the rest of the league. Additionally, the Penguins have been shorthanded 7 times in a game just once this season: October 18th's game against the Islanders. They've been shorthanded 6 times in a game on 7 (!) occasions this season: more than half of those against Metropolitan Division teams and all but one of those against Eastern Conference teams.

What I think this indicates is that the Penguins have a strong sense of teams they have rivalries against. They take more penalties against their own division (and their own conference) because they play these teams most often and therefore have more time to come to hate those teams and players. In turn, these teams learn that it's possible to get the Penguins to take dumb penalties and lose focus on the game. It's a self-perpetuating cycle.

With the playoffs coming up, and a first-round match up against the Islanders all but guaranteed, the Penguins must take the remaining month of the season to learn how to let the Matt Martins, Marc Staals, and Tom Wilsons roll off their backs. It's the only way they'll escape the first round alive. They're playing more disciplined hockey against the Western Conference, but the Pens will never get to show it if they can't get through the players who get under their skin in the east.

2. When the Penguins feel they are also battling the referees.

What I find most significant about the Pens potential discipline problems is that, whether perceived or real, other teams feel as though the book has been written on the Pens and the strategy is to try to drive the Penguins crazy, let them stop worrying about playing hockey, and take advantage of their weaknesses by scoring more goals than the Pens. We watched Bruce Boudreau, then coach of the Capitals, lay this strategy out in HBO's 24/7. Despite Crosby dominating him in possession, we listened to Brandon Dubinsky explain that his major strategy against the Penguins is to get under their skin.

Teams are going to play the Pens like this. And when the refs aren't calling the penalties--as will be the case in the playoffs--the Penguins have a tendency to take matters into their own hands. Worse, they have a history of turning their anger against the refs themselves.

A few weeks ago, during February 25th's game against the Capitals, the Penguins were given 6 power play opportunities and were tasked with 6 penalty kills. Overall, it wasn't a great game to watch because so much special teams time can be tedious, but even with the large number of penalties being assessed, the game never felt like it was getting out of hand. Why? Because the Penguins responded well to the refs' efforts to keep the game under their control.

On the other hand, yesterday's game was a good example of the Penguins resorting to vigilante justice. The referees in yesterday's game handed out misconducts like the world was ending and the only name that would be remembered in the apocalypse was the guy who doled out the most penalty minutes. It sucked to watch. And yet: tough shit. Some refs are going to "let them play."

In turn, Brandon Sutter needs to know better than to commit two penalties on a single shift, especially because his production is otherwise questionable. Kris Letang, hilarious though it may have been, can't mock the refs. Nor can he crosscheck a linesman. Chris Kunitz needs to know better than to shoot pucks at the refs. None of these players are over-excited rookies, and crossing the line into directing your ire at the refs is hardly productive.

A team already prone to vigilante justice can't make enemies of the refs. If the Pens think it's hard to get a call in their favor now, wait until the old boys' club that is the referees circle hesitates to give them calls because of a reputation for abuse of the refs. And in the playoffs, when the power play chances dry up, making every call more critical, the Pens will need all the help they can get. The negative effects of leaving your team shorthanded--particularly for the rest of the game--in the long grind of the playoffs cannot be overstated.

The team that scores the most goals wins, after all. It would be in the Pens' best interests to stop making it easier for other teams by giving them the man advantage.
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  2. Let the fans get ugly, the players need to stay focused--as hard as it may be, they need to suck it up. One positive from the DET game: at least Geno wasn't playing; he'd been good for at least another 4 PIM.

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