Penguins Caught in Bear Trap: Defense-less against Bruins

Kris Letang. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
Pittsburgh Penguins’ defenseman Kris Letang has struggled to play solid defense against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ team defense will continue to be the reason why they fail to contend for a Stanley Cup. The story is no different this post-season. The Pens’ defense was abysmal Monday night in Game 2 against the Boston Bruins. The Pens surrendered four first period goals in front of a shell-shocked Consol Energy Center.

Their lack of commitment to play shutdown defense is the number one reason why the Pens cannot find sustained success in the playoffs. If a resolution is not found by Game 3, the Pens’ will be more known for underachieving than winning a Stanley Cup in 2009.

“We made some mistakes that allowed them to get up in the score through the beginning of the game,” said Dan Bylsma. “And then we got off our game plan. “[We] got off playing our game by trying to find a goal, trying to find some offense in that game, in the second half of the game, and got away from playing the way we need to play.”

The Pens’ “game” needs to improve when they do not possess the puck. Everyone on the team needs to make an effort to play a much more structured defensive system. There is too much running around and chaos in their defensive zone. This lack of defensive discipline comes from the Pens’ superstars having no intent on playing the style needed to prevent the Bruins from scoring.

Kris Letang is one superstar who is at the forefront of this meltdown. He is supposed to be a Norris Trophy candidate, but all Letang is worried about is playing offense. His offensive abilities are one of a kind, but he’s been a liability on the back-end. Letang was a minus three in Game 2 and looks completely lost when it comes to covering a Bruins’ player in his own zone. Until Letang learns how to tie up an opponents’ stick and cover an opponent in his own end, he is going to be a liability in any playoff game. Who is Letang covering in the video below?

Despite Letang’s struggles, the entire team is at fault. Moments before the second period ended, Evgeni Malkin attempted to lift the stick of a Bruins’ player trying to prevent a scoring chance. Malkin’s attempt did not gain puck possession for the Pens. Instead of stopping, Malkin glided by the Bruins’ forward. Not stopping and starting shows lazy defensive play by Malkin. Although Malkin is not the only guilty party, gliding by a Bruins’ player rather than stopping is one of many “little things” that the Pens feel they do not have to do in order to win.

Ignoring many small details has led to inefficient defense. The Pens continue to force passes that are not available instead of flipping the puck high out of their own zone or high off the glass. This is one of many examples where the Pens’ can improve in their own zone when they have the puck.

When the Pens don’t possess the puck in their defensive zone, they continue to lack in many areas. They do not block enough shots in their own zone. When a Pens’ player is watching a Bruins’ player near the Pens’ net, there are few attempts to tie up the stick of a Bruins’ forward. Instead, the Pens are content being within an arm’s length. Right now, defense is seen as an option instead of a necessity for most of the Pens’ players.

The Pens also lack the discipline to pick up the correct Bruins’ player when they are back-checking. Jarome Iginla got caught staring at the puck in the first period. Instead of picking up David Krejci, Iginla lost his footing and was the main culprit for the Bruins’ third tally.

When the Pens’ forwards are defending in their own zone, they all flock towards the puck instead of picking up an open man. Malkin was guilty of getting sucked over to Jaromir Jagr after a defensive zone face-off at the beginning of the third period. This lack of defensive execution stifled any chance the Pens had of making a comeback. Malkin, as the Pens’ center, is responsible for the Bruins’ center, Patrice Bergeron. Centers are responsible for covering one another immediately following a face-off no matter what zone the face-off takes place. Malkin failed to follow one of the most basic rules as a centerman as displayed in the video below.

The Pens have scored a single goal in two games in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, their defense is much more of a concern than trying to solve Tuukka Rask. If the Pens don’t learn how to play team defense and winning low-scoring games in the playoffs, they will never earn a birth in the Stanley Cup Finals. If the Pens don’t improve their defensive play, they may be lucky to win a game in this series.