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Penguins hope defense generates more offense

| Thursday, April 10, 2014, 8:12 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang plays againt the Jets on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014 at Consol Energy Center.

If defense wins championships, the Penguins hope their healthy arsenal of offensive defensemen will make a difference in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Penguins have played 252 periods this season, and only 21 of them — about 8 percent — with their top six defensemen.

Finally, the blue line envisioned during training camp is together. Is a week's worth of practice and games enough to be ready for the playoffs?

“I'd like to think so,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “Getting that chemistry together quickly is going to be the hardest part. But I like to think we can do it.”

The Penguins' weakness all season has been the inability of the bottom-six forwards to provide scoring. They hope their offensively gifted defensemen can make up the difference.

While two members of the Penguins blue line — Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi — have enjoyed successful NHL careers because of their defensive abilities, the other four showcase the puck-moving, slick-skating style in which the organization is devoted.

The recent returns of Kris Letang (10 goals in 35 games) and Martin (15 points in 37 games) provide the Penguins with two of hockey's more accomplished offensive defensemen. With the entire defense core healthy, offensive-minded defensemen Matt Niskanen (10 goals, 45 points) and Olli Maatta (nine goals, 29 points) fill out the third pairing.

Penguins forwards unanimously maintain that such skill on the blue line makes the team far more formidable.

“Now we have so many defensemen who see the ice so well,” forward Jussi Jokinen said. “It changes a lot for us. It's a big deal for us.”

In his first game since suffering a stroke, Letang displayed the kind of vision and offensive instinct the forwards believe will pump life into the Penguins. In a tied game against the Red Wings in the third period Wednesday, Letang saw an opening.

Instead of dumping the puck into Detroit territory — while that would be the safe play, many Penguins forwards have admitted frustration without Letang and Martin in the lineup, because more limited defensemen must play a more simple game — Letang took a chance.

He skated into Detroit territory and down the right wing, firing a shot on goal. Jokinen tapped in the rebound a moment later.

“Kris is just such of a threat when he makes plays like that,” center Brandon Sutter said. “It kind of changes the way teams have to play us because he can do stuff like that.”

The Penguins have struggled without their top six defensemen in recent weeks. In 21 games since the Olympic break, the Penguins, playing without Letang and Martin, were outshot by 66 shots.

In the limited amount of time Letang, Scuderi, Martin, Orpik, Maatta and Niskanen have been in the lineup together, the Penguins enjoy a plus-28 advantage in shots.

Orpik said finding a balance between defensive responsibility and pushing the pace offensively — especially in Letang's case — is important entering the playoffs.

“I don't put too much value into numbers,” he said. “One year, people were all over him (Letang) because he hadn't scored a goal. But I thought other parts of his game were the best they had been. Kris adds that offensive dynamic, but when he's at his best, he's concentrating on defense first. The offense will come naturally.”

Many of the Penguins maintain that Letang's defensive presence largely is under-appreciated. One of the game's best and strongest skaters, Letang can add a physical edge while helping with a major problem.

“Getting the puck out of the zone is the biggest thing,” Niskanen said.

“We've spent too much time there. Some of that is breaking out with the puck on our stick clean. Some of that is ending plays quickly. Kris is a pretty good defender. He can manhandle guys in the corner, then he grabs the puck and heads the other way. When he's playing well, we're tough to beat.”

The Penguins hope to be difficult to beat simply because their blue line finally is healthy.

“The young guys have come in and done a good job,” Martin said. “But now the top guys are back in the lineup. It's time for us to be ready.”

Note: The Penguins returned forward Adam Peyerl to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Thursday.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at yohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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