Defenseman Orpik, Penguins fighting temptation to push puck
CALGARY, Alberta — Brooks Orpik is a defensive rock on a Penguins team that spends most of its money on offensive talent.
And he smells trouble.
He likes where the Penguins are in the standings but said he believes they remain a work in progress until they become more willing to focus on sound defense.
“I think sometimes we're not content winning low-scoring games for whatever reason,” Orpik said. “We lose our patience a lot offensively. We should be plenty happy with a 2-0 lead.”
The Penguins enjoyed three consecutive 2-0 leads on their western Canada road trip. They blew two of those leads and were forced to hang on for a victory against lowly Calgary.
Mental errors were the root of the blown leads, and Orpik stressed that such lapses can't be permitted in the postseason. The Penguins, for instance, took penalties on consecutive nights while working on the power play with a 2-0 lead.
“Watch the playoffs,” Orpik said. “Watch good teams, teams like St. Louis, L.A. and Boston. The good teams win low-scoring games. We learned it against Boston last year. They were really tough to create offense against. We need to learn how to win those low-scoring games. You have to be good defensively.”
Orpik and his teammates acknowledged that, when the Penguins have a full gallery of stars, they typically force offense even when a more conservative style is prudent. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang returned Jan. 5, and while the Penguins have scored 16 goals in four games with them in the lineup, they also have allowed 14.
“I think the cohesion of us playing defense,” coach Dan Bylsma said, alluding to stars returning to the lineup, “is an adjustment.”
He also acknowledged that his team's defense occasionally lapsed in the past when his star players were healthy, when a premium sometimes was placed on producing prodigious offensive numbers as opposed to merely.
“I think we played tighter and better 10 to 15 games ago,” said Bylsma, whose team showcased about 40 percent of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's roster during that stretch. “It's something that has slipped in the past five or six games with guys back in the lineup.”
This has happened before.
In 2012, the Penguins entered the postseason as the Stanley Cup favorite. Malkin had just finished his signature season, and Sidney Crosby had made a second return from concussions symptoms a month earlier.
The Penguins were flying high, but their goals-against total also was soaring. In the 14 games that Crosby played late in that regular season, the Penguins scored 63 goals in 14 games (4.5 per game), a historically high number. They also permitted 50 goals (3.57 per game) during that stretch, which was followed by Philadelphia's 30-goal barrage in six games against the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
A couple of team leaders — Orpik and defenseman Rob Scuderi — have cautioned that the Penguins need to tighten their defensive game. Winning the Metropolitan Division is a virtual lock, and the Penguins are a heavy favorite to claim the top regular-season record in the Eastern Conference.
But these Penguins are tired of being only a great regular-season team. To dominate in the playoffs, Orpik said he believes the penchant to push offense must evaporate.
“We can talk about it all we want,” he said. “But we let it creep into our game.”
Letang didn't sound as concerned, saying the Penguins need only to “get rid of stupid mistakes.”
Bylsma, though, sounds like a coach who wants more victories like the 2-1 win in Calgary on Saturday. It wasn't pretty, and the Penguins weren't at their best.
But they played a strong defensive game and didn't take chances, playing the kind of hockey that often wins in the postseason.
“We've gotten a little sloppy with the puck, sloppy with our mindset,” Bylsma said. “It's something we need to remedy ASAP.”
Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.