Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Time to address Penguins' pinching problems

By Mark Madden
March 27, 2018
Nolan Patrick #19 of the Philadelphia Flyers handles the puck against Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on March 25, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

As noted in this space Sunday, the Penguins don't have a Plan B.
That's no indictment of coach Mike Sullivan. As two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins haven't needed one. “Playing the game the right way” has sufficed.
But one particular phase of the Penguins' game has been torn asunder: Defensemen are too easily circumvented when they pinch, and odd-man breaks surrendered are far too plentiful.
Reasons abound for this problem:
• When pinching, the defensemen play too much puck and not enough man.
• Forwards are derelict getting back, perhaps too often assuming the defenseman will win the pinch.
• The opposition has it figured. The Penguins' style is nuanced, but not chock-full of options. The defensemen pinch all the time. The defensemen join the rush all the time. (The latter also contributes mightily to the odd-man break problem.)
So, how to fix it?
Good question.
The Penguins aren't conceited, but they are convinced. It's foolish to bash a style that has worked so well. Why should they change, or even adjust much?
But the NHL has changed, and adjusted. The Penguins once overwhelmed with speed. Now much of the league has caught up.
Here are some options, none of which Sullivan will consider.
• Limit which defensemen join the rush, and in what situation. Kris Letang always does, Chad Ruhwedel rarely does, everybody else is in-between. Offensively, some defensemen contribute more.
• Keep a forward high depending on score and situation. Pinch, but with less risk.
• An extreme alternative would be to trap, then counterattack with numbers after turnovers. Don't laugh. That's what the 1991-92 Penguins did to overcome a three-games-to-one playoff-series deficit against Washington en route to a second straight Stanley Cup. It was Mario Lemieux's idea.
The Penguins shouldn't abandon risk. They're high-risk, high-reward.
But the Penguins should play more sensibly when the situation calls. They've proven they can: witness zero goals surrendered in the last two games of last season's Stanley Cup Final.
Sullivan has certainly noticed the problem.
“Sometimes when we tend to give up odd-man breaks, it's because we're flat in the offensive zone with the three forwards,” Sullivan said after the Penguins beat Philadelphia, 5-4, in overtime Sunday. “We don't have any sort of depth to our attack.
“If something doesn't go right for us — if we hit a shin pad, or we lose the puck — now we're on the wrong side of it. We're chasing it.”
The solution is simple, said the Penguins coach: “Make sure you're on the right side of people and have some depth in the offensive zone.”
Loosely translated, that means the high forward should lean toward covering for the defenseman when he pinches — even more so when score and clock dictate.
The twits on Twitter are wetting their pants with worry: “This style will never win in the playoffs! We need Fleury and Cole back!” Like the citizens know more about what it takes to succeed in the postseason than the two-time defending champs. Yikes.
The forwards can fix a lot of the Penguins' defensive problems: make fewer turnovers. When they are made, make them less grievous. Chase back with better anticipation and more commitment.
Conor Sheary's shortcomings in that regard may lead to him not getting a jersey for playoff games. When centering Sheary and Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard has to be Patrice Bergeron dipped in Bob Gainey. That's too much defensive burden when you also have to produce. (Which Brassard is starting to do.) Jake Guentzel isn't much better than Sheary defensively.
At least the Penguins have locked up one significant accomplishment: They swept the season series against Philadelphia. Have you ever seen the Flyers win the Cup?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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