Penguins say they have to adjust to 'clutching and grabbing'
BUFFALO — There once was a time the Penguins would complain incessantly about the amount of “clutching and grabbing” permitted by NHL referees.
They still don't like it — skilled teams never do — but instead of complaining, they intend to adapt. Monday's 2-1 victory against Ottawa left both teams furious because of penalties that weren't called.
“We're wasting our time discussing it,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “In the playoffs, it's the way things are going to be.
“This is actually a good opportunity for us to adjust accordingly and to try and not get frustrated by it. We know it's coming.”
The Penguins were awarded 3.33 power plays per game before the Christmas break. Since their game Dec. 27 against Carolina, the Penguins have received only 2.82 power plays per game.
Ottawa consistently slowed down center Sidney Crosby by assigning a forward to impede his path while he attempted to pick up speed in the neutral zone without the puck. No penalties were called.
“The only penalties being called right now are high-sticking and slashing,” left wing Tanner Glass said. “It's playoff-style hockey right now.”
Glass initially sounded frustrated by the officiating against Ottawa, but he changed his tune.
After all, part of Boston's strategy in last season's Eastern Conference final was to clog the middle of the ice, interfering with the Penguins' stars enough to slow their momentum but in a subtle enough way to avoid punishment.
“That's the way they always start calling things this time of year,” Glass said. “We know that. In a way, I think we have to welcome it.” This is the way it's going to be, and we've got to adapt to it.”
While the Penguins forwards must cope with this strategy and muscle through tactics that bend the rules, a different set of circumstances face the Penguins defensemen.
Although the Penguins have built a blue line based on speed and puck retrieval skills, they aren't above figuring out how far officials will let them go in terms of holding up the opposition.
“It's tough,” Orpik said. “Every referee has a different interpretation, so it's tough getting used to it.”
The game has changed significantly during Orpik's career. After the 2004-05 lockout, defensemen weren't permitted to interfere with forwards on the forecheck. If they did, it was a penalty.
However, the enforcement of the rules, in the minds of many players, has slipped.
“It was so hard coming out of that lockout,” Orpik said. “Everything that you'd been taught as a defenseman your entire life had been switched. And the forecheck was the biggest thing. You're always trying to protect your partner.”
Scoring in the NHL is starting to drop, as it typically does this time of year. Games tighten up in the second half, and fewer penalties are scored.
During the first two nights of this week, only 70 goals were scored in 16 games, an average of 2.18 per team.
“Things were definitely a lot tighter in the Ottawa game,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “No doubt about it. There wasn't a lot of room out there. It had the feel of a playoff game.”
And for these Penguins, the playoffs will be the ultimate test.
Instead of complaining about the lack of freedom that would see the Penguins at their best, they've decided to stop fighting the NHL's history of letting team defense liberally take a bite out of star power.
They've learned, instead, to roll with the punches — or the clutching and grabbing.
“There certainly was a lot of clutching and grabbing in the Ottawa game, and we've noticed it in recent games,” Martin said. “I think it's important that you don't get away from your game and what you do well. It's kind of hard to gauge what's going to be called and what isn't. We just need to play our game and adjust.”