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Kovacevic: Pens lean on strategy, not stars

| Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011

Evgeni Malkin was shaking his head and smacking his stick on the ice as he pulled out of one of the Penguins' drills Tuesday morning at Consol Energy Center. A leg injury would keep him out of the home opener later in the day, and he was visibly deflated.

Funny, but no one else looked that way.

To hear the rest of the players fresh off that skate, I was wondering if anyone even noticed.

"You know, we've still got to go out there and play and do our jobs," right winger Arron Asham said, a few hours before the Penguins did exactly that in flattening the Florida Panthers, 4-2. "And honestly, I'm not sure what's all going on with Sid and Geno."

Hey, who can keep up?

Sidney Crosby told reporters Tuesday that he'll see his concussion team later in the week, but there is no plan to discuss being cleared for contact. Malkin was slew-footed Saturday in Calgary by the Flames' Curtis Glencross, and the prognosis there, too, remained vague.

Yeah, sounds like Asham has it right: The Penguins need to approach this season as if every game they get from Crosby or Malkin is a bonus.

And that, to their credit, is how they handled it again Tuesday night.

Kris Letang pinched deep to spark a Pascal Dupuis goal. Joe Vitale had the primary assist on that one and the next by Matt Cooke. Craig Adams' sweetly timed forecheck led to Richard Park's short-handed goal. The defense held the Panthers shot-less for extended stretches.

It was all much more methodical than magical, but that's fine. What most people still don't seem to understand about these Penguins is that they, unlike so many of their predecessors, feed off strategy rather than their stars.

"We'd love to have Sid and Geno, obviously," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "But we play a style that's difficult to play against no matter who's in the lineup. We're going to play a dogged style in the offensive zone, grind you down and win a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games with the same system."

Let's take a look at Cooke's goal on the chalkboard:

1. Cooke began the play after getting the puck in the high slot of the defensive zone. That's where he's supposed to be. The Penguins break out through the middle maybe more than any team in the NHL. Most still go up the boards.

"I'm just looking ahead there," Cooke said. "Duper is the stretch guy."

2. Cooke fired a pass all the way to the opposite blue line, where Dupuis waited on the left side, his back to the Florida goal. This, too, is a set play. Dupuis is supposed to touch the puck across to a forward coming through the middle with speed. This was Vitale, and Dupuis found him in stride, but only after Vitale shouted two commands.

The first: "Time!"

(Dupuis was uncovered.)

The second: "Middle!"

(Vitale was ready for the pass.)

"Joe has to be my eyes there," Dupuis said. "If he doesn't yell, I just chip it down the boards."

Vitale is a rookie, but the Penguins run the same system in Wilkes-Barre.

"That helps so much," Vitale said. "When you come up to the NHL, you just play."

3. Cooke, in a show of fierce hustle, burst up ice to join Vitale for what became a two-on-one after Florida's defense failed to react.

"We're looking to create our own odd-man break," Dupuis said. "And we did."

Vitale backhanded a pass that Cooke slammed home.

"No missing that one," Cooke said.

None of those three players is a star, but the play was. And ordinary players can do extraordinary things when there's harmony like that.

Dan Bylsma and his staff have installed a complex system that's somehow aggressive and disciplined at the same time, and they've had years to teach it to the same core group. The key is support. Anytime a defenseman pinches, one forward — designated "F3" by Bylsma — must cycle back to cover for him.

As Lovejoy said with a straight face, "We have confidence in F3."

Things were made easier Tuesday night in that the Panthers came with a new coach, 14 new players and a decade-long string of being seriously lousy. But that only underscores the value of the Penguins' consistency in instruction and personnel.

Someday, when Crosby and Malkin return, I'm guessing they'll make a fine F1 and F2.

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