For Penguins, A Great Offense Begins with a Better Defense
The Penguins are a different and truly dangerous team this postseason.
photo via Pittsburgh Penguins / greg shamus
Defense wins championships, or so goes the theory.
Mike Sullivan is a believer, and more importantly so is his team.
“It’s hard to win at any sport if you can’t defend,” Sullivan offered in advance of the Penguins’ first-round playoff meeting with the New York Rangers. “Regardless of how good your team is or the ability that you have to score, you have to be able to defend and keep the puck out of your net.
“It’s important as a group that we understand that. I think our guys have bought into that idea.”
Recent results suggest the Penguins have bought into that idea wholeheartedly.
And that makes Sullivan Salesman of the Year.
Previous Penguins contenders always seemed more interested in attempting to out-talent teams, mostly because they were convinced they could.
Eventually, they’d meet a team that was patient enough to sit back and wait for the Pens to force the issue and make mistakes –– the Rangers, for example –– and then exploit the opportunities those inevitable Penguins’ misplays had created.
But the Penguins are a different team this postseason.
They still attack, but only when it’s to their advantage.
In the meantime, they’ve become a very difficult team to score against.
And that’s been the case no matter who has been in the net.
“It’s hard to outscore teams in this league,” Sullivan continued. “You have to outplay teams. The way you outplay teams is you make good decisions, you make teams play 200 feet and when the time comes to defend, you defend hard and diligently.
“It always starts with the decisions that we make with the puck. We don’t become a high-risk team. We become a calculated team.”
And in the playoffs “calculated” translates.
The Penguins have always been more interested in being combustible.
But Sullivan suddenly has them understanding the value of dumping the puck rather then turning it over in the neutral zone, of regaining possession deep in the opponents’ end and pressuring from there, of establishing a ferocious forecheck when the “chase” part of the “dump-and-chase” equation doesn’t quite get there, one that can create turnovers and offensive opportunities.
These Penguins even backcheck with a purpose when all else fails, taking time and space away from opponents and, on occasion, the puck.
The ability to score goals again is what everyone has noticed most since Sullivan took over in mid-December.
But it’s the ability to generate offense from defense and the ability to defend through responsible, calculated play that makes these Penguins truly dangerous.
They’ve entered the postseason sixth in the NHL in goals-against average at 2.43, in part because they no longer leave themselves open and vulnerable in a never ending pursuit of more, more, more at the offensive end.
“We’re doing everything we can to defend,” winger Carl Hagelin maintained, “and when we get a chance to go, we go.”
Hagelin, like Sullivan a mid-season arrival, has helped Sullivan change the culture.
“If your defense isn’t the way you want it to be it’s going to be hard to win games,” Hagelin added.
The rest of the Penguins have played as if they’re in complete agreement over the last couple of months.
Maintaining that belief is their ticket to playing for a couple more.