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Rossi: Lack of together time showing for Penguins' defense

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Sunday, April 20, 2014, 10:06 p.m.
 

The Penguins' top six defensemen have combined to play 387 postseason games. That seems like an advantage while playing the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It is not.

Those same six defensemen — Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi — have also played together for only 29 full periods since training camp. About 35 percent (10) have been in the past two weeks.

“There's something to be said for the chemistry. When you play with guys only a certain amount of time, you don't have that built up,” Martin said Sunday, an off-day for the Penguins after their 4-3 double-overtime loss to Columbus in Game 2 of an opening-round playoff series.

“But I don't think it's any excuse for us not to be better. We all know what we're supposed to do no matter who we play with.”

Knowing is not doing, though.

The Blue Jackets' winning goal in Game 2 on Saturday at Consol Energy Center featured a couple of wingers — Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson — left open to shoot freely at Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Calvert scored on his second attempt after Fleury had denied both him and Atkinson.

On that sequence early in the second overtime, Scuderi was behind the net and Letang looked to attempt covering for him by skating toward Fleury's stick-side post.

Calvert's goal was one of only two the Blue Jackets have scored at even-strength, but Penguins defenders often have been caught backtracking, fumbling pucks and sometimes seeming completely out of position.

There is probably a good reason for this troubling trend. Forwards are committing turnovers regularly, though they had been credited with only 12 of the Penguins' 23 giveaways through Games 1 and 2.

Where those turnovers are happening, not the number, is critical. That they have happened mostly in the neutral zone — and if not there, high in the offensive zone — is the problem.

A new neutral-zone system was adopted this season, but Penguins defensemen recently have noted its potentially disastrous downside. If a forward fails to make the right play — either a quick pass or dumping the puck — in the neutral zone or near the offensive-zone blue line, the Penguins' left defenseman is susceptible to being caught flat-footed against transitioning opposition forwards.

Scuderi, Orpik and Maatta are the left defensemen.

Maatta was victimized by forwards' neutral-zone mistakes several times late in the regular season. Scuderi had it happen to him in Game 2, and he was forced to take a tripping penalty.

The Penguins have taken 10 penalties in their opening-round series against Columbus. Defensemen have accounted for six.

On Sunday, coach Dan Bylsma did not rule out switching his regular defense pairings for Game 3 at Columbus on Monday night. That might not help, because the Penguins' top six defensemen actually lack experience playing as a group.

Injuries depleted the Penguins' defense corps much of the regular season. Health was restored right before the playoffs, but the injury fallout remains.

The Penguins have had six months to prepare for the postseason, and the new neutral-zone system was implemented to help get them back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Their defensemen, though, are basically into their fourth week of getting used to it — and that has showed.

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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