Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Penguins have a blueprint

By Joe Starkey
Published: Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, 10:15 p.m.

Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma outlines a drill during an NHL hockey practice at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File, 1/14/14)

Minutes after receiving his gold medal, Sidney Crosby found himself one-on-one with NBC's Pierre McGuire.

These would be Crosby's first public words after a landmark victory in which he scored a spectacular breakaway goal. As always, he chose them carefully. This is how he characterized Team Canada's ruthless ride through Sochi:

“We played great defensive hockey.”

Great defensive hockey. That, ladies and gentlemen, should be the Penguins' mantra for the final 24 games of the regular season. Somebody should find all those signs at the arena — including the one in the locker room — and add a word to make them read like this: It's a Great Day for (defensive) Hockey.

That is not the same as passive hockey. It's not about skating backward all game (an aggressive forecheck is often your best defense). It's no time drop into the Guy Boucher 1-3-1 or pack 10 guys around the goalie, either.
No, this is about adopting a mindset. It's about committing to the singular purpose of goal-prevention. It's about getting comfortable winning 2-1 games, insulating your goaltender and protecting a 3-0 lead instead of trying to make it 8-0. It's about making smart, unselfish decisions with the puck.

You know, like Team Canada.

If a cast of wildly talented All-Stars can embrace such a philosophy, why can't the Penguins? They're headed in that direction anyway. The change started last season, coming off the Flyers debacle, but the Penguins still got lured into a first-round track meet against the Islanders.

Marc-Andre Fleury says this is the best defensive team he has played on. Jacques Martin was brought in to monitor the defensive side of the puck. Rob Scuderi returned. Coach Dan Bylsma installed a left-wing lock to add layers, or “lanes,” of defense. The penalty kill has been phenomenal. Patience has become a watch word.

All of it has added up to a 40-15-3 record and a goals-against average of 2.36, which, if it holds, would be the team's lowest since Kevin Constantine's first season of 1997-98 (2.11).

But the Penguins still have relapses. They are offense addicts trying to kick the habit (“Hi, I'm Evgeni, and I'm a goal-a-holic.”). They must learn to trust their system in the crucible of playoff hockey, and it has to start with their two best players, Crosby and Malkin.

You'll learn to forgive those two real quick if they don't score and the Penguins still win. Remember the narrative coming off Game 5 of the 2009 Cup Final? It went like this: The Penguins had no chance if their superstars didn't start finding the net.

Except that their superstars combined for zero goals in Games 6 and 7, and the Penguins won the Cup.
Why? Because they played great defensive hockey. Crosby and Malkin were demons on the back check and dominant deep in the defensive zone.

The Penguins' GAA that year was lower in the playoffs than the regular season. The opposite has been true every year since, sometimes reaching catastrophic proportions (see: 5.00 vs. Flyers). Part of that is Fleury's fault, of course, but, like all goalies, he is largely a product of his team's approach.

The Penguins are seventh in the NHL in GAA. Why not shoot for first? Bylsma spoke Tuesday of how allowing two or fewer goals per game pretty much guarantees victory. He agrees there is another level to reach.

“I think we can be better defensively,” he said.

Scuderi is like a good A.A. sponsor. When he spots signs of a relapse, he points it out. He did so last month when he said the Penguins were turning into the “Harlem Globetrotters.”

Hey, buddy, what's wrong with a 6-5 game?

“As a fan, I absolutely see it's entertaining,” Scuderi said. “I've been in those situations, watching, saying, ‘Wow, this is great.' But as a player, you know a lot of mistakes are happening, and when it comes down to crunch time in the postseason, those games just don't happen. The teams that clamp down are the ones that win.”

Clamping down like never before should be the Penguins' goal, their mission, their singular purpose beginning Thursday against Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens.

This team, injuries and all, has been playing quite well defensively for much of the season.

Now it's time to play great.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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