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Rossi: Penguins establishing their identity

| Thursday, May 8, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

NEW YORK

It was a big number, but it seemed small to the Penguins by the end of the regular season.

They finished with 529 man-games lost to injury, the most in the NHL. However, to open the Stanley Cup playoffs they were without only three projected regulars, and that is probably the way it will be for a potential series clinching Game 5 against the New York Rangers on Friday night at Consol Energy Center.

When Round 2 was in New York, captain Sidney Crosby acknowledged developing a team identity provided a challenge the Penguins probably were not up for during the regular season.

“It was difficult because we hadn't had a full lineup,” Crosby said. “The one thing we had to be aware of, and I think we've done a pretty good job, was getting better as the playoffs go along.”

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said after Game 4 on Wednesday night that the Penguins have “maybe figured out our problem from the last few years.”

They have surrendered fewer than 25 shots in three of 10 playoff games and held opponents less than 30 in five of the past six contests dating to Round 1.

“We play a tighter game,” Fleury said. “We still go play in their zone and play hard offensively, but we don't give them as many odd-man rushes and scoring chances — and that's a big difference.”

The Penguins were the NHL's highest scoring team entering last postseason, but finished with only two goals against Boston in the conference final. A lot of external attention was focused on the lack of offense, but coaches believed overall improvement was needed defensively.

Against the Bruins, the Penguins lost the neutral zone — stymieing their puck-retrieval offensive attack because forwards were forced to exert too much energy playing in their own zone.

A new neutral-zone system was installed during training camp, and assistant coach Jacques Martin was tasked with teaching skilled forwards the benefit of take-away defending that could lead to transition scoring chances. The Penguins have scored 11 goals, at least five from transition, and forwards are credited with 24 takeaways in Round 2.

The Penguins always believed, defenseman Paul Martin said, they could score and defend to win. They just needed some time to get on the same page.

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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