Atlantic: Sullivan adds savvy to Penguins power play

By Ian Altenbaugh

Photo: Pittsburgh Penguins forward Steve Sullivan has added a much-needed element to the Penguins power play this season (courtesy of

Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

The Pittsburgh Penguins signing of Steve Sullivan at one year and $1.5 million seemed like something of an afterthought back on July 1st. At 37, Sullivan could provide offensive depth for the Penguins, but coming off an injury-marred 2010-11 season that saw him post 22 points in 44 games, expectations were understandably stunted. A history of back problems that caused Sullivan to miss the last 20 games of 2006-07, all of 2007-08, and half of 2008-09 helped to create some of the doubt surrounding this signing.

But those concerns now seem to be in the past. Sullivan has not only been a solid addition to the Penguins, but one of only six skaters on the Penguins to appear in all 65 games. It has been his presence on the power play, particularly on the point, that has been most notable, however.

Entering the 2011-12 season, the Penguins were coming off three seasons in a row where their power play ranked towards the middle, or worse, in the NHL. It was particularly bad in 2010-11, when the team was ranked in the bottom-10 for much of the regular season and got even worse when they managed only one goal in 35 opportunities in the post-season.

With Sullivan in the lineup this season, the Penguins have the fifth-ranked power play in the league. Playing the right side of the point, opposite either Kris Letang or Matt Niskanen, Sullivan has averaged 3:56 minutes of power play time per game and has seen more total time on the man-advantage than all but seven other players in the NHL.

The biggest thing Sullivan has brought to the Penguins power play is unpredictability. He uses his shifty puck-handling and deft skating to change the pace of the power play, speeding it up at times with quick rushes deep into the offensive zone, but also slowing it down if necessary.

Currently Sullivan ranks fifth on the Penguins with 37 points including 19 with the man advantage. Fifty-one percent of his points have come on the power play, proportionately more than any other forward in the NHL.

Atlantic Division Notes

New Jersey DevilsStar forward Ilya Kovalchuk hasn’t scored a goal in nine games, a span in which the Devils have gone 4-4-1. Though the Devils dropped three of their last four on the road, they remain one of the top road teams in the NHL this season, with a 20-12-2 record. Two-way forward Jacob Josefeson hasn’t scored a goal in 21 games since returning from a broken clavicle in early January. Travis Zajac has resumed light skating but remains out indefinitely with a sore Achilles tendon.

New York Islanders
Rookie goaltender Anders Nilsson posted the first NHL shutout of his career on March 4th against the New Jersey Devils. The 21-year-old has split the season between the AHL and NHL, playing mostly as a backup at the NHL level, but seeing 23 starts in the minors, posting a 15-6-2 record. Rookie forward Casey Cizikas has seen some offensive success since being recalled from the AHL, managing three points over his last three games, and has spent time alongside Kyle Okposo and fellow rookie Nino Niederreiter.

New York Rangers
The Rangers will host the Devils tonight where they will look to take the lead in a season series tied at 2-2. The teams met twice in February, each getting a 1-0 win. Second-year forward Derek Stepan has been hot over the last week, posting a goal and three assists in his last three games. Currently, Stepan has 43 points, just two shy of his rookie point total last season. More impressive though is his plus-24 rating, which is ranked eighth in the league, and third among forwards.

Philadelphia Flyers
With defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Kimmo Timonen out with lower body injuries, Erik Gustafsson was recalled to fill in. While not possessing the same level of talent as Meszaros or Timonen, Gustafsson brings a capable, puck-moving presence to the blue line. In addition, Gustafsson has a fair amount of NHL experience, playing 22 games over the past two seasons.

Pittsburgh Penguins –
Defenseman Deryk Engelland missed last night’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes because of a lower body injury. Prospect Brian Strait was called up from the AHL to take his place in the lineup and played 12:19 minutes. While Strait does not replace the hitting dimension that Engelland brings, he is nonetheless a physical and mobile presence, equally capable of rushing the puck up ice and clearing the goalie crease. Winger Tyler Kennedy returned Monday night after missing exactly one month of hockey from a high ankle sprain. He played just over 14 minutes and had three shots on net. Sniper James Neal hasn’t scored a goal since February 18th. A model of consistency for the first half of the season, Neal has seen a decline in his goal-scoring since the New Year, managing just nine goals in his last 27 games after posting 21 in the 38 prior.