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Forwards' adjustment spurs Penguins' stronger defense

| Monday, March 18, 2013, 7:21 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Brandon Sutter breaks up the wraparound attempt by the Bruins' David Krejci during the second period Sunday, March 17, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

Brooks Orpik is being heard.

Candid dating to his first full NHL season in 2003-04, Orpik has never shied from pointing out the Penguins' problems.

Since winning the Stanley Cup four years ago, those problems often have primarily been of the defensive variety — and the early stretch of a nine-game winning streak proved no exception.

The Penguins surrendered 17 goals over the first four wins of this run. They have allowed five goals in as many games since.

“We're being a little more patient, and our forwards are collapsing a lot better,” Orpik said Sunday after a 2-1 victory over Boston at Consol Energy Center.

The Penguins registered only 18 shots in that victory. They had not combined for 18 shots and won by a 2-1 score since June 12, 2009 — the night they won the Cup at Detroit in Game 7 of the Final.

As they were then, the Penguins over the weekend — in home wins over the New York Rangers and the Bruins — were clinical with their possession and movement of the puck.

Orpik, critical of himself and teammates only a few weeks ago when the Penguins had allowed at least three goals in nine of 10 games, took notice of the club's improved overall team defense during the last five games.

“A lot of times when you get that big gap, separation coming out of the zone, forwards get too far ahead and if there is a turnover it's tough for them to recover,” he said. “We're doing better with that.”

Or, as right winger Pascal Dupuis simplified: “We're defending better, defending lower.”

Dupuis cited an adjustment instituted after a 5-4 victory at Philadelphia on March 7.

The Penguins trailed that game, 4-1, before storming back behind a relief performance in goal from backup Tomas Vokoun, who was tasked with stopping only 14 shots. Starter Marc-Andre Fleury, pulled after the first period, had been peppered with 18 shots from the Flyers in those opening 20 minutes.

Coaches used an off-day practice to focus on the defensive role of the third forward that entered the defensive zone, Dupuis said.

The suspicion was that — at least 5-on-5 — this would cut down on the instances of opposing forwards appearing completely unmarked in the crease, either to pounce on rebounds or in position for easy reception of cross-slot passes.

“We decided to collapse a little lower,” Dupuis said, “to play almost a box.”

Opponents have still found success attacking the Penguins in the defensive zone on power plays. However, for the most part the second portion of this winning streak has been built on a foundation of solid 5-on-5 play in the own zone that coach Dan Bylsma wants his club to, well, actually own.

Vokoun made 31 saves in the win over Boston, but the Bruins — a top Eastern Conference club — only really dominated time of possession late in the third, when the Penguins were protecting a one-goal lead.

The Penguins actually protected that lead for the final two periods. Their high-octane forwards, led by NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby, tracked back and used eye-hand skills to lift up sticks and loft out pucks.

Or, another way of looking at it: Not as many blind breakout passes — low percentage attempts — to chase scoring chances.

“It's the right way to play,” Vokoun said.

Preserving 2-1 wins is unlikely to become the brand of a club that has four players with at least 13 goals, a team that began Monday with 14 more goals than any other NHL squad.

“We know with the guys we have in our lineup, we're going to score goals,” Orpik said. “It's not a matter of scoring goals, it's a matter of keeping goals out of our net.”

Orpik has said that before, of course. Lately, at least, the Penguins are listening.

Note: The Penguins didn't practice Monday. Updates on center Evgeni Malkin (upper-body injury) and defenseman Kris Letang (lower body) were not provided, per team policy.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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