Pens Suddenly Adamant About Defense Winning Championships

It’s trench warfare on ice in this year’s Final. And the Penguins aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving.

They’ve gotten the offense they anticipated from a variety of sources, from Sidney Crosby and even from Ian Cole.

But they’ve gotten the defense they needed from everyone, from Matt Murray and even from Phil Kessel, and that’s why the Penguins are on the brink of the Stanley Cup championship.

“The deeper you get in the playoffs, the better the teams are, the deeper they are and the harder they defend,” head coach Mike Sullivan insisted after the Penguins had pushed the Sharks to the brink of elimination with a 3-1 victory in Game 4 on Monday night in San Jose. “This is something that we’ve said to our team all year long.

“It doesn’t matter how many goals we score, we have to learn how to defend. We have to learn how to make a commitment to keeping the puck out of our net. I know this team can score. When we start making a commitment to playing away from the puck and keeping the puck out of our net, now we become a team that’s, in our opinion, a contender.”

Sullivan had been banging that drum since his arrival in December.

It was a message directed at a team infamous for an approach to and an appreciation of defense that was skeptical at best.

Now, the Penguins endeavor to block shots with head-first attempts.

Patric Hornqvist and Matt Cullen both sold out in such a fashion in Game 4 against San Jose.

And the Penguins improved to 13-0 in the postseason when holding an opponent to two goals or fewer, including 3-0 in the Stanley Cup Final.

They’re 2-7 when the goals-against total reaches at least three this postseason (0-1 against the Sharks).

“I don’t think teams get this far if they don’t have the ability to defend,” Sullivan continued. “The top players get the most attention from probably the better defenders. And so it doesn’t surprise me that goals are hard to come by because both teams are making a sincere commitment to playing away from the puck.”

The commitment on both sides has been such that Sullivan declared what he’d seen from the Penguins and the Sharks in Games 1 through 4 to be “the hardest hockey that I’ve witnessed in all the years I’ve been associated with this league just as far as how hard both teams have to work for their ice out there.

“You have to work for every inch of ice.”

That from a man who played in the NHL for 11 seasons, spent seven more as an assistant and is in his third season as a head coach.

Had he been in Pittsburgh longer than since December, he’d be even more incredulous over and even more appreciative of what these Penguins have become.

It’s trench warfare on ice in this year’s Final.

And the Penguins aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving.

They’re winning with defense.

Murray’s rookie-season magic has had a great deal to do with that, but no more than the all-in buy-in made by those in front of him to do whatever’s necessary to keep opponents off the scoreboard.

They’re a different team in many respects, these Penguins.

None more so than in their commitment to defend.

“We couldn’t be more proud of our players and the way we’re playing,” Sullivan gushed.

It’s delivered these Penguins to within 60 minutes of the Cup.


Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section