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Penguins defend their defensive scheme

| Sunday, May 18, 2008

Michel Therrien refused to get caught in the trap.

"We control the ice, that's the simplest explanation," Therrien said of the defensive system he immediately installed upon taking the Penguins' coaching job Dec. 15, 2005.

"That other word is not what we do. I don't like that other word."

Still, word is that the once-reputably fire-wagon hockey Penguins are trapping their way to the Stanley Cup final.

They lead a best-of-seven Eastern Conference final series against the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-1, with Game 5 at Mellon Arena, 3 p.m. today.

The Flyers know what they are up against.

"It's a 1-4 (trap), or a 1-2-2 with a wide gap," Flyers goaltender Martin Biron said. "There's a bunch of different terminology for it, but they're very, very patient.

"Their forwards are doing a lot of the work out there. They're doing all the work on the forecheck. They're doing the work plugging the neutral zone. They're doing the work on the breakout, the transition game. They've been a big key for them."

So has an unheralded defense corps that has followed Sergei Gonchar's lead and lives by one simple rule: High-percentage risks are the only ones worth taking.

Defense has come to define the Penguins, who previously were known mostly for past NHL scoring champions Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and current captain Sidney Crosby.

"Who would have thought anybody would be talking about the Penguins' defense," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I hear that or read that, and it still seems strange. But we've been pretty good all season, and especially in the playoffs."

Coming off a regular season in which their goals-allowed total rated ninth among 30 NHL teams, the Penguins had allowed the fewest goals per game of any playoff club prior to a loss Thursday at Philadelphia in Game 4.

Opponents have registered 30 shots or fewer in eight of 13 playoff games. The Penguins, not surprisingly, are 11-2 in the postseason.

Aside from a poorly played opening period in Game 4 -- they allowed three goals on 17 shots -- the Penguins have owned the neutral zone against the Flyers, limiting scoring chances with enough frequency to leave goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury feeling "useless."

"They have a pretty good system set up," Flyers forward Scott Hartnell said. "Their 'D' never pinches (in the offensive zone). They always have both their 'D' back, so you have to go through at least two, if not three guys if they have the third guy high. And when they turn it over, they have some of the best players in the world coming at you."

This was part of Therrien's plan to "change the culture" in Pittsburgh, where rigid adherence to a system of any kind has not existed since Kevin Constantine was behind the bench in the late-1990s.

Therrien's system resembles a trap at times, mostly when the Penguins are protecting a lead, but he loathes that term.

That makes sense considering the harsh perception of the trapping style used by the New Jersey Devils to win three Cup championships since 1995.

Jacques Lemaire, Therrien's mentor, guided the Devils to their first title. But even though he has moved on to Minnesota and the Devils kept winning, Lemaire cannot escape the charge that his system changed hockey for the worse.

Former Wild forward Wes Walz, who played seven years under Lemaire in Minnesota before retiring during the regular season, said study of video shows that Therrien and Lemaire are kindred philosophical spirits.

He said Lemaire, like his pupil, never uttered the word "trap."

"Our system was completely misunderstood by those on the outside," Walz said. "It was about every player being in the right position, because if even one guy is out of position, it is really easy for teams to gain speed through the neutral zone -- and once they get through the neutral zone, they get scoring opportunities.

"So we tried to prevent teams from getting into the neutral zone. We tried to be in proper position to force turnovers and turn those into our offense. That is what I see going on with the Penguins. People call that 'the trap.' Jacques called it, and I agree, 'winning hockey.' "

Therrien witnessed that belief first-hand while playing for Lemaire in Longueuil of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Their one season together convinced Therrien that Lemaire's way was the winning way.

"Then I saw what he was part of with New Jersey, too. Jacques won the Cup (in 1995), and (the Devils') system was a foundation for years of winning," Therrien said. "I looked at the Devils, and that's what I wanted to bring to Pittsburgh."

Therrien's system mirrors the one favored by Lemaire, though with a more aggressive forecheck to make best use of the Penguins' fast and skilled forwards.

But the Penguins have not become a trap team any more than the 29 other NHL clubs, all of which Therrien said play a variation of the 1-2-2 design effectively used by Lemaire's squads. Therrien thinks it is a good time to clear up any confusion.

"There is no trap with us," Therrien said. "There's smart, responsible hockey. If you want to label it, that's the way."

Constantine, whose 1997-98 Penguins allowed the fewest regular-season goals in franchise history (188), can appreciate Therrien's assessment.

"The word 'trap' is very misunderstood," said Constantine, whose Houston Aeros, the Wild's top minor-league affiliate, led the AHL in goals-against average this past season. "It only describes one small element of team defense."

Constantine said the Penguins are excelling at the six components necessary to be considered a great defensive club: goaltending, penalty kill, forecheck, neutral-zone defense, defensive zone awareness and fundamentals such as hard work and positioning.

"If a team comes into the offensive zone, pulls up or delays, and you see the defense have a lot of bodies in the middle of the rink and their sticks are on the ice -- that's coaching, that's a team strategy," Constantine said. "I've seen that a lot from Pittsburgh."

Right wing Petr Sykora grew to know the trap fairly well during his seven seasons with the Devils, which included a Cup win in 2000 and a Cup final appearance in 2001.

He knows what people are saying about the Penguins, and he is not at all pleased to hear that word associated with this team.

"You can't say that about us," Sykora said. "It's different hockey. We didn't skate in New Jersey. We waited by the red line, all five of us. And there was hooking and clutching and grabbing -- all of that stuff to slow you down and not let you go through.

"We're not doing that. We're just playing smart all over the ice. We've been doing that all year. It's just that now people are starting to notice, and they want to talk about it, give it a name.

"It's not 'the trap.' It's just what wins."

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