Penguins Weekly: Buying In on the Defensive End

What a week for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Although the week didn’t start off on the greatest of notes — a narrow 7-6 win over the New Jersey Devils in which the Pittsburgh Penguins gave up all six goals in the third period — the team really bought in on the defensive end in their remaining games while winning all four games of the week.

Pittsburgh is currently riding a four-game winning streak while collecting points in nine of its last 10 contests. Here’s what the team has going for them.

Buckling Down Defensively

One of the team’s biggest keys to success this season has been defense. Mike Sullivan and his staff, as well as captain Sidney Crosby — who is making a serious case for the Selke Trophy this season — have made it a point to buy in defensively. That was on display in Sunday’s 1-0 victory over the Boston Bruins.

The Penguins were limiting Boston’s opportunities in high-danger areas on Sunday and that kind of hockey is exactly what wins games come playoff time.

Leading the way for the Penguins defensively is Crosby and the duo of Zach Aston-Reese and Teddy Blueger, who seem to be one of the team’s best lines no matter who Sullivan puts with them.

Arguably the best winger Sullivan has put with the two has been Brandon Tanev. However, he has obviously been on and off the shelf with injuries throughout the last month. Tanev, who has put up seven goals and 16 points in his second season with the Penguins, is not expected to return to the lineup before the playoffs (from ‘What’s behind Cody Ceci’s resurgent season with the Penguins?,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 4, 2021.)

Teddy Blueger Pittsburgh Penguins
Teddy Blueger is having his best season yet in the NHL. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, the past two games Aston-Reese and Blueger have been slotted with Kasperi Kapanen, who recently returned from an injury suffered on March 24. Kapanen has provided a very nice complement to the pair, bringing high-end offensive talent to a third line known for their defensive prowess.

Blueger is undoubtedly seeing his best season as a pro. The 26-year-old is just one point away from matching his career high of 22 points and has notched a point in five of his last eight games.

Crosby, on the other hand, is making a very strong case to win his first Selke Trophy of his 16-year career. It’s amazing that he has never won the trophy considering his 200-foot game is usually evident in every season he plays. If you ask me, it’s a shame that his offensive game overshadows his defensive ability. But, that’s the way it’s been for years — the high-end offensive guys only get recognition for their scoring no matter how sound they are defensively. It seems as if they have to be extra noticeable on the defensive end to garner that attention.

Ceci, Matheson Pairing Has Been Very Impressive

The Aston-Reese/Blueger duo is not the only pairing that has been turning heads in Pittsburgh. The defensive pair of Cody Ceci and Mike Matheson has been the backbone of the back end for the Penguins.

Behind Kris Letang’s 39 points, Matheson and Ceci account for the second- and third-most points, respectively, among Pittsburgh blueliners.

He makes that good first pass. Sometimes, it’s an uneventful play. It’s a simple play, but it’s an effective play.

Mike Sullivan on Cody Ceci

Both players are seeing career years in the plus/minus department while Ceci sits in third on the team with a plus-16.

Since March 27, Ceci leads all NHL defenseman with points (11) at 5v5. The best part is the cheap price that he came at, signing a one-year deal worst $1.25 million during the offseason.

Cody Ceci Pittsburgh Penguins
Cody Ceci has collected 17 points in 46 games in his first season with Pittsburgh. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Penguins will need to lock him up during this offseason as he is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Matheson, on the other hand, is signed through the 2024-25 season at a $4.875 average annual value.

Pittsburgh will try to keep the good times rolling when they host Boston on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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