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Hockey Day In Pittsburgh: Pens' defensemen can let it 'slide' on PK

Upon joining coach Dan Bylsma's staff before last season, Penguins assistant Todd Reirden wanted to know whether a couple of key defensemen were comfortable making a sacrifice.

For Brooks Orpik, it would be hits. For Zbynek Michalek, it would be blocked shots.

There was -- and remains -- a method behind Reirden asking an elite hitter and shot-blocker to settle for fewer of those over the course of the season.

"The idea was to not take so much of a beating on their bodies," Reirden said.

There is a financial logic to the thought process. Orpik ($3.75 million) and Michalek ($4 million) are part of a top defensive foursome that also includes Paul Martin ($5 million) and Kris Letang ($3.5 million).

At a combined $16.25 million annual salary-cap hit, those defensemen accounted for approximately 27.4 percent of the Penguins' cap number last season and 25.3 percent this season.

The Penguins believe their top four defensemen are as stout a group as any in the league. To play long stretches without one -- as they will for at least the next four weeks because of Michalek's broken finger -- is not a great return on investment.

So, fans might wonder why the defensemen are encouraged to drop to the ice when some opponents are on the power play. Well, they're coached to do just that -- to a point.

"If they have a guy attacking the net or trying to make a quick play, you go (down). And if they're deep in the corner, you might not go (down)," defenseman Deryk Engelland said. "It's a matter of who has the puck, what that team's game plan is. It's tough because we are encouraged to go down, but we're supposed to read off what they're doing."

Reirden said the "slide" technique is implemented to cut off passing lanes, not block shots, and should be common only during penalty-kill situations.

A former defenseman, Reirden, like Letang, believes sliding during even-strength situations should be limited to when defending an odd-man rush.

Measure it
Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden prizes defensive positioning over measurables such as blocked shots and hits. A comparison of the club's notable stats before and after Reirden arrived last season, with NHL rank in parentheses:
Season Blocked shots Takeaways Hits
2009-10 1,182 (9) 388 (29) 2,154 (3)
2010-11 1,082 (24) 444 (29) 2,280 (3)
2011-12 149 (3) 71 (5) 230 (3)
Source: NHL.com

Still, the slide is part of the Penguins' plan for diffusing man-advantage opportunities, and there is no arguing its success. The Penguins are first in penalty kill this season after finishing atop that category for the first time in franchise history last season. Through 11 games this month, the Penguins have surrendered just one power-play goal -- a 4-on-3 tally in overtime.

Puckspeak

Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury shares thoughts on ...

• His attempts to score into an open net:

"A couple of guys are scared of getting minuses, and (goaltending coach Gilles Meloche) is worried, too. He's, like, 'Don't do it.' "

• His early-game big saves:

"It's like scoring goals for a player. The early saves are what I like the most. They get me into the game."

• His old yellow pads:

"I saw some pictures lately and was, like, 'That was so long ago.' Sometimes I kind of wish we would have a big yellow and black third jersey and I could come out in full yellow -- like a big banana."

Three to watch

Opposing players to keep an eye on during the next week:

• Mark Streit

Islanders defenseman

He has six points in seven games after missing all of last season.

• Phil Kessel

Maple Leafs right wing

Call him white hot with nine goals and 15 points through eight games.

• David Steckel

Maple Leafs center

He has three goals through eight games, but in these parts he's known more for a certain hit.

League points

Developments from around the NHL:

Maple Leafs

Toronto is willing to deal recently claimed defenseman Cody Franson.

Pierre LeBrun, ESPN

Ducks

Anaheim general manager Bob Murray isn't interested in swinging a big deal similar to the one last week between Vancouver and Florida, even if it would mean improving his club's offense.

Eric Stephens, Orange County Register

Flames

Calgary won't look to acquire Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson.

Eric Francis, Calgary Sun

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