Penguins plan to play four defensemen a lot
Before the NHL trade deadline expired, Penguins general manager Ray Shero discussed with his staff the possibility of adding depth to his defense corps.
"With what we would have had to give up," he said, referring to a likely high- to mid-round draft pick, "I finally just asked everybody, 'Where would this guy play?' "
That question, were it posed to the Penguins' No. 3 defense pairing of Ben Lovejoy and Matt Niskanen, would elicit a shrug from both players. Neither was on the ice for 13 minutes Wednesday night in Game 1 of an opening-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Opportunities figure to become more scarce for the pair as the series progresses because coach Dan Bylsma knows his top four defensemen can handle a heavy workload — and must against a Lightning squad blessed with skilled forwards.
"With our guys, they're not as effective if they're not playing at least 22 minutes," Bylsma said Thursday after practice at Consol Energy Center, where Game 2 of the best-of-seven series will be played tonight.
Bylsma was referring to Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik, veterans who won the Cup with the Penguins two years ago, and Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, free-agent acquisitions who were the jewels of Shero's offseason.
The players stand out because of their mobility, intelligence and work ethic, Shero said. Bylsma acknowledged they essentially provide the Penguins with two top defense pairings.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers rode their top four defensemen last postseason en route to the Cup Final. Bylsma suggested after Game 1 that he would try to do the same thing.
"Why not put those guys out there?" Lovejoy said. "You're talking about an elite group."
Veteran Lightning winger Simon Gagne suggested his club's top-six forwards — a perceived advantage over the Penguins — did well to generate scoring chances on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
They just couldn't score.
"We weren't in the right places for second and third chances," he said. "Their defensemen did a great job of pushing us away or just not letting us get to those places."
The best reason for Bylsma to lean heavily on his top two pairings is because of their efficient execution of his puck-movement system, which calls for two defenders to retrieve pucks — a form of aggressive max support — before quickly pushing it to forwards in the neutral zone.
The Lightning's 1-3-1 zone-trap system isn't ideally suited to generate success against the one employed by the Penguins. Tampa Bay has scored two goals in three losses to the Penguins on the road, where Bylsma can manipulate matchups with the last-change option.
"They want to be pressed. They want to draw you in so they can make that quick pass," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "They're very good in traffic and in confined areas. You either have to press hard or back off. If you're stuck in between, it's not going to work against them."
Four to play
The minutes played by the Penguins' top four defensemen in Game 1 compared to their regular-season averages:
Kris Letang: 27:19 in Game 1; 24:02 during the regular season
Paul Martin: 23:17 in Game 1; 23:21 during the regular season
Zbynek Michalek: 24:39 in Game 1; 21:50 during the regular season
Brooks Orpik: 21:48 in Game 1; 20:52 during the regular season