Following a shaky but, ultimately, successful road trip through Western Canada, the Pittsburgh Penguins returned home with a rare opportunity to recharge and refocus. Indeed, with a single contest on the calendar in an eight day span, the Pens are staring down a week of significant free time. And, while some may perceive such a stretch as a negative for a club that emerged victorious in 13 of its past 16 games, this lull in the schedule couldn’t come at a better time.
Despite the fact that Pittsburgh continues to accumulate points and enjoy an absurd lead within the Metropolitan Division standings, the squad’s play hasn’t exactly always inspired over the last few games. With an opportunity to fit in some quality practices, Dan Bylsma‘s boys can refocus on:
Getting Back to Basics
In initializing a new defensive system over the offseason, Bylsma and the Pens brought in Jacques Martin to assist in the overhaul:
“They wanted somebody to teach transition offense. Bylsma wanted Martin (it was Bylsma’s suggestion) because he planned to adopt a defensive system that would generate turnovers in the neutral zone…Martin has a specific role: Get the scorers to buy in to the system so that come playoffs, this is all natural, this way of transitional offense as opposed to the stretch pass then possess.” – Rob Rossi, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
For much of the season, the club’s evolution has proven wildly successful. With Pittsburgh implementing sound, defensive play, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff have excelled in net. The transition game consistently presents nightmares for opponents and the Penguins simply keep winning despite their well-documented injury woes.
The last few contests, however, have resembled the kind of play that typically burned the Pens in the past. And, despite superior talent consistently overcoming the bulk of their mistakes, sloppy turnovers, undisciplined penalties and fire wagon hockey have recently replaced responsible, two-way play.
In fact, after what may have been the team’s worst performance of the season in an overtime loss to Edmonton on Friday night, an infuriated Rob Scuderi called his teammates out, comparing the Penguins to the Harlem Globetrotters.
Were Scuderi’s comments too harsh? In the eyes of some, perhaps so but, to “The Piece”, it was simply a matter of stepping up and voicing concerns about the way his team was playing. Because, after playing something that resembled pond hockey against Winnipeg and blowing multiple two goal leads in Western Canada, someone needed to hold the Pens accountable after surrendering 12 tallies in only three games.
With the Pens presented with an opportunity to hold four practices this week, Pittsburgh will have the perfect opportunity to refocus, recommit and return to the attention to detail that delivered so much success throughout the season, the brand of hockey that has mostly separated the club from its rivals in the Metropolitan to this point.
Of course, it won’t hurt that all those practices will also provide…
A Reintroduction to Each Other
Though not out of the woods yet, the Penguins have fought valiantly through significant injury woes that began before the season ever started. From James Neal to Evgeni Malkin to, well, the club’s top-four defensemen, virtually no one escaped the wrath of the injury bug. And, yet, the Penguins just keep winning.
Now that the regulars are starting to trickle back into the lineup, though, it’s evident the Penguins are in the midst of adjustment period. Indeed, with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi all recently returning to action (in addition to Taylor Pyatt‘s acquisition from the waiver wire), Pittsburgh can now seize an opportunity to actually string some practices together and, subsequently, rekindle the club’s chemistry on the ice.
“I think it will be huge. I’m still trying to get comfortable after coming back from injury. We got some more guys coming back. We really haven’t had a lot of practice time with ‘Geno,’ ‘Tanger’ and some of the new guys that we’re plugging in, so having some good practices with the group that we’re playing with will be a good thing for us.” – Brooks Orpik, on the extra practice time
How could that not be a good thing? In reality, neither Orpik nor Scuderi have appeared all that at ease since their respective returns. Perhaps a break from game action filled with an opportunity for a few extra practice sessions will help them shake that discomfort.
Meanwhile, Malkin and Letang have played well since returning to the lineup but an opportunity for them to work on the man advantage with the rest of the big boys will certainly behoove the Pens’ power play. Because, while the group still paces the circuit in efficiency, it has sputtered in recent games, connecting on just two of its past 12 opportunities. Yes, it’s an admittedly small sample size and, yes, all clubs go through slumps but that 16.6% efficiency falls a far cry from the season’s 25.2% effectiveness. And while it’s certainly not time to panic, the light load this week provides the perfect opportunity to work on special teams, an ideal situation that just may jump start the league’s most potent unit.
Time will tell if this stretch actually serves to benefit the Penguins. One game in eight days. It’s enough to make the fans restless; but, for the team, it seemingly couldn’t come at a better time.
Sean Griffin is a lead writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins at The Hockey Writers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.