Ian Cole #28 celebrates with Tom Kuhnhackl #34 and Justin Schultz #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins after a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 26, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
When the Stanley Cup playoffs started, some saw the Penguins’ defensive corps as a liability.
As it turns out, it’s pretty good. Making the final is a dead giveaway.
The success of the Penguins’ blue line indicates a change in the way the NHL plays, and the very specific duties that GM Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan require.
In 2009, the Penguins’ Stanley Cup champions utilized a “shutdown pair” of 6-foot-7 Hal Gill and prototypical defensive defenseman Rob Scuderi. They were very effective, and a big factor in containing the opposition’s top threats.
Those two, in their prime, would have no place today with a good NHL team.
Today’s hockey is about puck management, and Gill and Scuderi could barely manage to get the puck on their sticks.
In 2016, defense is about having the puck. Spending as little time as possible in your end. In the current game, Gill and Scuderi would be liabilities because they had sub-par precision in possession.
Ian Cole and Justin Schultz are more attuned to the way hockey is.
As a pair, Cole and Schultz are greater than the sum of the parts. Individually, mediocre. Together, much better. It’s odd that Cole struggled mightily as Kris Letang’s partner, but elevates Schultz.
Cole is adequate physically. Schultz does the bare minimum in that regard.
But Cole and Schultz can skate, which allows them to get to dumps and loose pucks first. They have quick sticks and good ice awareness, which enables them to disrupt opposition passing. They block shots. (Cole is fourth in these playoffs with 39 blocks.) When they get the puck, they turn the play around smartly and quickly. When the situation calls, they contribute by joining the rush.
In today’s game, Cole and Schultz are a lot closer to a “shutdown pair” than Gill and Scuderi would be.
So far, losing Trevor Daley (broken ankle) has been much less catastrophic that it could have been.
His minus-4 hiccup in Game 5 against Tampa Bay duly noted, Letang has been the Penguins’ most valuable player in these playoffs. His skill set is exactly what’s required of a No. 1 defenseman, and his execution is consistent. Just when you think Letang has gambled unwisely, his skating gets him back in the play.
Letang’s omission from Canada’s team for the pretend Olympics reflects negatively on Canada’s warped selection, not Letang’s worthiness. (Jake Muzzin?)
At 6-4, Brian Dumoulin has a reach reminiscent of Gill’s but is a much better skater with superior skill. His consistency makes you forget he’s a rookie.
Ben Lovejoy is playing the best hockey of his life during these playoffs. “Ka-ching!’ goes the cash register come Lovejoy’s free agency July 1.
That leaves Olli Maatta. What a story.
Maatta wasn’t playing very well, and got scratched for Games 2, 3 and 4 against Tampa Bay. But Daley got hurt. Maatta re-entered the lineup for Game 5 and put together sustained excellence.
Maatta was on the ice at the end of Game 7, protecting a one-goal lead and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. When the puck went behind the Penguins' net in the waning seconds, Maatta got it, shielded it and kept it there. Smart play. Game over. A brilliant performance from Maatta when the Penguins needed it most.
Maatta is 21. He’s been through a lot: Cancer, two shoulder surgeries and mumps. Maatta is back on the path to being a top-pair defenseman. He’s got everything.
The Penguins don’t have everything. In a 30-team league, no team does. But the Penguins have enough.
San Jose is their stiffest test. But the Penguins win in 7.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).