Pittsburgh’s defense has killed our pre-final assumptions

The largely anonymous blueline corps has featured an intense effort from Kris Letang, but he’s not doing it by himself. Several unheralded defensemen have stepped up during the post-season and now the Penguins are on the cusp of the title.

Take away Kris Letang, and what do you see from the Pittsburgh blueline on paper? Olli Maatta, the oft-injured youngster. Justin Schultz, who barely survived the Edmonton Ruin Machine after choosing the Oilers over the Ducks. Ben Lovejoy, a player GM Jim Rutherford openly admitted he shouldn’t have traded Simon Despres for last year.

And yet, this crew (plus Brian Dumoulin and Ian Cole) has helped the Penguins to within a game of the Stanley Cup, despite losing Trevor Daley to injury before the final even began. How are they doing it?

Keepin’ it simple, to be blunt.

“It’s a team defense, not necessarily a group of individuals out there,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “That’s what’s helped each player throughout the course of this post-season.  They trust one another. They rely on one another. They support one another. Because of that, I think they bring out the best in each other.”

Letang is the outlier. He has been playing near-Norris hockey all season long, but the playoffs are really shining a light on his work. The slick-skating rearguard has played an average of 28:50 per night in the post-season, tops among any NHLer who got out of the first round. His 13 points also rank third among defensemen, but he could tie or pass Tampa’s Victor Hedman (14) in Game 5.

Otherwise, the Penguins crew has just gone about their job quietly – and it has been frustrating for the Sharks.

“They just get the puck out of their own end as quickly as possible up to their forwards,” said San Jose coach Peter DeBoer. “There’s nothing fancy about it. Not afraid to rim it, to throw it out, to flip it out. They’re not looking to make cute plays. They’re just looking to get it out of their own zone as quickly as possible.”

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The Sharks’ task is to figure out the right balance of aggression and patience when forechecking and though DeBoer believes San Jose’s best effort in that regard came in Game 4, it can still take the wind out of a team’s sails when they push hard to get the puck deep, only to see it get winged back out of the zone right away.

And it’s not like a Maatta or Dumoulin is all of a sudden going to step out of line; the unit has been effective because the players have come together throughout the odyssey that is the NHL playoffs.

“We’ve certainly challenged these guys each and every day to be at
their best,” Sullivan said. “What I like about this group, and what I’ve really grown to
admire about this group, is how close-knit they’ve become through this
journey. I think they really established a trust factor amongst each other
that they’re going to do their jobs.”

And if they can do that for one more game, they’re all going to have a pretty big trophy to hoist above their heads. But this time, they’ll get to do it one guy at a time.