PITTSBURGH – Given the offensive pizzazz on the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s hardly surprising that the most overlooked facet of their game has been their defensive prowess in these NHL playoffs.
Yes, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the offensive juggernaut have provided some flashy and timely goals, but behind the sizzle lies the truth behind a 9-1 record this spring. The Penguins are ranked first in goals against, allowing only 1.90 goals per game in the playoffs.
“That’s a part of the game we’ve been working on,” star defenceman Sergei Gonchar said Saturday after practice. “A lot of people probably aren’t paying attention to it because it’s not something people think about when they think about the Pittsburgh Penguins. They think about nice goals and nice plays.
“But everybody has really bought into the defensive part of the game and that’s why we’re having some success.”
It showed again Friday night in the opener of the Eastern Conference final, the Penguins completely shutting down the Philadelphia Flyers once they took a 4-2 lead in the second period.
“When we took that two-goal lead, we were tough to play against,” said head coach Michel Therrien. “It’s just something that we try to teach a lot with that young group through the course of the season to be able to get some success in the playoffs.”
Therrien and his coaching staff deserve much credit. It’s not easy convincing a young roster full of offensive studs to try just as hard on the other side of the puck. That part isn’t nearly as much fun. But it starts with the guy wearing the captain’s ‘C’. Crosby bought in a long time ago so his teammates had no choice but to follow their young leader.
“Obviously, we realize if we don’t play well defensively, we’re not going to win a lot of games,” said Crosby, who was plus-18 in the regular season and is plus-3 so far this spring. “We do have a lot of offensive players. But we all realize if we take care of things on our own end, it gives us a better opportunity to have the puck and not be chasing as much all game.
“So I think up front we realize we have to make sure we’re coming back hard. Our defence has done a great job. They manage the puck well. We’ve got some big guys there that can be physical and they need to be. And obviously when Marc-Andre (Fleury) is playing well, it’s hard to score goals against us.”
Therrien is constantly bombarded with questions about his offensive stars. Can you believe how good Sid The Kid is, can you believe what Malkin did in tonight’s game, etc… But his eyes lit up Saturday when asked about his team’s defensive play. He obviously is proud how far his team has come in that department.
“You know what, people probably won’t pay attention to our defensive game because of the weapons that we have offensively,” said Therrien, whose team will look to take a 2-0 lead with a win Sunday in Game 2 (7:30 p.m. ET). “And I believe that’s normal. We stress a lot with the players about playing a good team game, good defensive game, a good checking game. They know they want to be successful. And there’s no team at this time of the year that could be successful without playing a good checking game.
“This is a young group who wants to be better. This is why it is so fun for a coaching staff to work with those young guys. Because they want to get better, and they pay attention to detail. … Even if they’re gifted, a lot of players are gifted defensively, they’re not going to cheat. They’re going to play the book, they’re going to do the percentage play, and that’s the only reason why right now we have success.”
Clearly that message has sunk in through the Penguins dressing room.
“Defence wins championships, that’s the way it is,” said Penguins checker Jarkko Ruutu. “If you want to start opening up and try to get into high-scoring games, then you’re probably not going to win. When you play smart defensively you create chances going the other way. I think it’s a good balance, we’ve been smart about it so far.
“I think guys are buying into the defence much better than ever,” he added. “You see guys like Malkin coming back hard. Everybody is buying in, it’s contagious. Especially when your top guys are doing it. When they’re not cutting corners, everybody follows suit.”
Centre Jordan Staal, only 19, figures it’s pretty simple really.
“Our game plan is really about limiting the other team’s chances and we know that sooner or later, with the talent we have on this team, we’re going to score goals as well,” Staal said. “When we keep the puck out of our net, we’re fine.”