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Neutral zone still proving a pain for Penguins

| Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, 6:24 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Penguins defensive pairing of Brian Dumoulin and Ben Lovejoy play against the Wild during November 2015 at Consol Energy Center.

Ben Lovejoy skated with a full face shield — first a cage-style model, then a transparent plastic variety — during Tuesday's practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry to protect the stitched-up wound along the right side of his face.

“Not much pain,” he said. “A little bit of discomfort.”

Neither the gear nor the still-healing gash distracted Lovejoy from hearing coach Mike Sullivan's message as the Penguins prepared for Wednesday's game against Toronto.

“Coach Sullivan said we had eight very bad turnovers going through the neutral zone that immediately came back and put guys in tough situations defensively (on Sunday against Winnipeg),” Lovejoy said. “Today at practice, (he) talked about it takes a skilled play to chip a puck into space and be in a position to go retrieve it. Sometimes we need to use our skill for that and get to the offensive zone.”

Neutral-zone play, a point of emphasis since Sullivan began his tenure earlier this month, still hurts the Penguins more often than it helps.

Under Mike Johnston, the Penguins ranked 29th in the league in neutral-zone turnover rate and neutral-zone pass completion rate, according to sportsnet.ca. The blue-liners at Tuesday's practice, including Kris Letang, labored to refine their understanding of Sullivan's breakouts and where they fit in the system.

Letang's absence for much of December, first for an upper-body injury and then Sunday as a precaution after he took a shoulder to the head a day earlier, has complicated the Penguins' efforts to improve their defense-to-offense transition. He paired at practice with Olli Maatta, who spent the latter portion of December familiarizing himself with Trevor Daley, another offensively gifted blue-liner.

“(Daley) can sometimes make something happen out of nothing,” said Maatta, who added the biggest difference between his defensive partners was handedness — Letang is a righty, and Daley is a lefty.

Sullivan did not indicate whether Letang will play Wednesday, so the Penguins' probable defensive pairings were unclear.

“Certainly the fact that (Letang) was participating in practice is a big step for us,” Sullivan said. “I think Kris' (head) health has been our first priority.”

The lack of a more serious injury to Lovejoy at least spared the team one additional adjustment. While much of the defensive corps became interchangeable because of the trade that replaced Rob Scuderi with Daley and Letang's absence, Lovejoy and Brian Dumoulin remained a constant in the lineup. They've been on the ice together for 456 minutes and 56 seconds, according to puckalytics.com.

Anything that resembles routine likely sits well with Sullivan as he continues to install new tactics during practices.

“I thought we touched on three or four themes in practice today that we've been talking about and really haven't had an opportunity to practice much,” Sullivan said. “Hopefully moving forward we'll have an opportunity to get some more substantive practices where we can actually work on certain aspects of our game.”

Lovejoy switched his full-face shield style during practice after he determined the cage version limited his vision, an unwelcome worry for a defenseman who, based on advanced metrics created by the Passing Project's Ryan Stimson, already rated as the Penguins blue-liner least likely to create offense with a pass.

Lovejoy looks for no excuses to explain away his failings in the neutral zone. And he said he believes the rest of the Penguins are growing just as honest in their assessments of the team's neutral-zone play.

“We need to clean that up,” Lovejoy said. “I think that in this room, we've been talking about that all year.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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