After deciphering the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defensive mentality, they were not Stanley Cup favorites until now. They were chosen by many as the preseason Cup favorites. This was based upon individual talent, not team success. The Penguins prematurely exited the playoffs in the last two post-seasons. No exit was more painstaking than their debacle against the Philadelphia Flyers a season ago.
The Pens proved they were able to score enough goals to beat the Flyers, but they were unable to keep pucks out of their own net. The Pens and Flyers series may go down as one of the most bizarre playoff series in NHL history, but one thing was for certain, the Pens had glaring defensive deficiencies. These problems continued to linger into this lockout shortened season.
The Pens went on a nine game stretch this season giving up four or more goals in six of those games. The Pens won four out of those six games but there was plenty of luck along the way that helped the team achieve victory. Winning four out of six games would qualify as winning one round in a seven game playoff series, but the Pens tried outscoring teams in last year’s postseason and we all know what happened. When the Pens try to outscore another team or get into a track meet with an opponent, there are too many uncontrollable variables that the Pens cannot dictate.
The Pens should not depend upon outscoring opponents in the playoffs. Up until a few games ago, the Pens seemed to have this “all-offense” mentality. Pens’ players were rarely, if ever, heard talking about playing defense in their own zone. Everything about the Pens success had to do with playing in the offensive zone. Even if the Pens were asked about how they were playing in their defensive zone, they would refer back to the offensive zone.
Pens’ winger Pascal Dupuis was asked by 105.9 The X Morning Show host, Tim Benz, about how the Pens could play better in their defensive zone following a game last week.
“We have to play in the offensive zone. It’s a matter of holding onto the puck, managing the puck at both blue lines. Putting pucks behind their defense, it’s how you can play defense as well. You keep the puck in the other end, you manage it, [and] you hold onto it as much as you can. You get shifts in their zone for 40-45 seconds. The other team can’t go to offense [and] they got to go change.”
The Pens’ defensive mentality, up to this point in the season, has been how well they’ve played in the offensive zone and about their puck possession. Why weren’t the Pens ever talking about how they were supposed to play when they didn’t possess the puck? Hockey experts will tell you a team has the most structure in their defensive zone. A team can choose how they defend in their own zone. They can control that part of their game. This was something the Pens were lacking while they were getting involved in high scoring affairs.
Dan Bylsma, time and time again, has said, “We don’t want the game up and down. We don’t want it to be, words that I’ve read, a “track meet.” Coach Bylsma was stressing that the Pens didn’t want to play in high scoring games, but they continued to participate in them on a regular basis.
If you’ve paid attention to the Pens over the past few games, you would’ve noticed how they have slowly improved their defensive tone. As the Pens have attempted to improve their defense, their mentality and their words have slowly but surely changed throughout this transformation.
On March 4, against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Pens trailed 2-1 entering the third period. After a highlight reel goal from Evgeni Malkin and an equalizer by Sidney Crosby, the Pens held a third period lead against the Lightning, the second highest scoring team in the league. In a post-game interview by Mike Prisuta of the WDVE Morning Show, Brooks Orpik spoke about a conversation he had near the end of the third period with Martin St. Louis of the Lightning.
“I think it’s pretty telling at the end of the game when they were reviewing how much time is left St. Louis came up to me and said what is going on here tonight? You guys box us out at the hash-marks when we’re trying to get to the net.” This was the beginning of a defensive zone improvement for the Pens. Something the Pens obviously hadn’t done well proven by what St. Louis had to say, and that the Lightning had faced off against the Pens four games prior.
In that same conversation, Orpik went onto diagnose the problems that Pens had experienced in their own zone this season by saying, “It’s not a system problem, it’s just mentality. When you go out there, I think sometimes if you talk about getting to the offensive zone so quick maybe you start cheating defensively or in the defensive zone. That leads to some chaos.”
Chaos was the perfect word to describe when the Pens took a road trip to Philadelphia and found themselves in a 4-1 hole after the first period. They went onto win 5-4, scoring their fifth goal a minute into the third period. The Pens held onto that lead and started proving they could play quality defense when need be. While the Pens proved to themselves that they could put down the clamps defensively, not everyone on the team had bought into the mentality at that point. “We still got a ways to go on defensive zone coverage and some of the defensive aspects of our game,” said Orpik following that game against the Flyers.
After scoring 26 goals in five games, the Pens were bound to be taking part in some lower scoring contests. Closer hockey games have more of a playoff feel to them. The Pens needed to prove they were past their playoff woes from a year ago, and show a commitment to defense that was constantly questioned. Everyone was hearing Coach Bylsma say that the Pens were working on their defense, but the Pens hadn’t shown a body of work to prove Bylsma’s words true.
“What we’ve focused on is with the net front area being the most dangerous, and protecting that area. Also when the puck goes back to the point which a lot of teams use, you got to get into a guy or box out a guy early and not let them skate to the net. You got to get into them early because once a guy gets there it’s pretty hard to move them out of those areas with the rules and with how the referees are calling the game. Those are the types of things we’re working on in D-zone coverage and really paying attention to protecting the net front area and boxing out early when the puck does goes to the high F-3 or the D.”
The Boston Bruins, the best team in the Eastern Conference not residing in Pittsburgh, were beaten by the Pens twice in a week’s time. The first time around the Bruins looked like they were running on fumes after the first period. Coming into Sunday afternoon’s game, both teams were playing their third game in four nights. The playing field was equal. Despite the absence of Malkin and losing Kris Letang to an injury late in the first period, the Pens proved they can win by playing shutdown defense.
By playing quality defense and paying attention to details in their defensive zone, this Pens team is finally showing they have what it takes to succeed in the postseason. They have shown over the past four games that they have discipline in their defensive zone, and are proving they can win with defense. “We’re being a little more patient and I think our forwards are collapsing a lot better,” said Orpik. “I think the biggest thing is just being patient. I think we know with the guys that we have in the line-up that we are going to score goals. It’s not a matter of scoring goals; it’s a matter of keeping them out of our net.”
If this article isn’t convincing enough to prove that the Pens are Stanley Cup worthy due to their defense, talk to Bruins’ Head Coach Claude Julien. “Today to me was a typical playoff game where I thought we played well and we played hard and so did they. It was a tight game. I thought we spent more time in there end and we did all the things right except we couldn’t get that goal.”
When the Pens get somewhat outplayed but can still win a low-scoring game, that’s when you know they are ready to compete for a Stanley Cup. For the first time all year, the Penguins are a legitimate contender to win the Stanley Cup.
Justin Glock has covered the Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers since 2011. As a lead writer, his Penguins knowledge traces back over two decades. For any requests, please feel free to contact Justin via email: JGlock10@gmail.com.