Penguins' goal on 'D' is 200 or fewer goals

| Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011

The Penguins have a magic number for this season, but it's not specific.

Anything less than 200 goals allowed will do.

"Last year, that was something we looked at a lot in our room, on our coaching staff," coach Dan Bylsma said Monday after a controlled scrimmage divided practice sessions at Consol Energy Center.

"We wanted to keep the number under 200."

They did at 196, tied for the sixth fewest goals surrendered by any team, and the Penguins' lowest total of the post lockout era.

They pulled that off despite playing the opening 41 games without center Jordan Staal, inarguably their top defensive forward, and the final 10 minus left wing Matt Cooke, arguably second to Staal in that distinction. Also, their big-bucks defensemen — Paul Martin ($5 million) and Zbynek Michalek ($4 million), each signed during 2010 free agency — were learning a new system.

Staal is confident the Penguins can do better, his faith fortified by the anticipated return of centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. The former is expert in the art of takeaways, the latter an elite faceoff artist.

A trait Staal, Cooke, Malkin and Crosby — not to mention the likes of Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams — share among Penguins forwards is speed, which was the icing on the defensive cake baked by the Penguins last season.

When considering the potential for the Penguins' team defense, don't discount their forwards, defenseman Ben Lovejoy said.

"Look at our line rushes," he said. "We play a style that's incredibly aggressive and makes it tough for other teams to get in our zone."

Good thing, too, because the Penguins rated bottom-10 in blocked shots (24th) and takeaways (29th).

The Penguins' team defense, whether at even strength or shorthanded, is not reliant on individual brilliance, head-standing goaltending or puck devouring defensemen.

"How we're tough to generate offense against is something we focus on no matter what that situation is, and that's a lot of how we approach it," Bylsma said.

The approach taken by the forwards — a group that could include two former scoring champions and eight others who have tallied at least 15 goals in a season — should again prove the Penguins' secret defensive weapon.

"It's a lot of skating for the forwards and it's very difficult," Staal said. "It's jumping on reads, and when a guy does that he has to have the other guys support him. You want to be aggressive together, and when you have guys doing that — it's tough to go through five guys defensively."

Not impossible, as the skilled forwards for Tampa Bay proved in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs last season by posting 22 goals over the final six games after a Game 1 shutout loss.

Noteworthy, though, is that the Penguins lost that series in seven games that were played without Malkin, Crosby and Cooke, and with a limited top defensive pairing because of Brooks Orpik's abdominal injury.

No excuses from the Penguins, though — just a thought from Staal about the possibility of finishing this season as the best defensive team.

"I would hope so," he said.

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