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Kovacevic: Time to move, and skate, forward

| Friday, April 13, 2012

Blow by blow, Dan Bylsma made his point on the dry-erase board to open the Penguins' practice Thursday: Skate forward, pass forward, shoot forward, eat, sleep, drink and dress like a bear forward.

Bylsma then backed the point puck by puck, blowing the whistle through several of the simplest drills you'll see, all forward all the time.

Believe it or not, they were working on defense.

For the Penguins, moving forward is the defense.

It has to be.

Let's start by dispelling an unfortunately burgeoning myth: The perceived dip in defense has nothing to do with Sidney Crosby's return. In fact, there's been no real dip at all: The team had a 2.67 goals-against average in January, 2.62 in February and 2.80 in March with Crosby.

Pattern dismissed.

Fact is, the Penguins aren't a great defensive team. Haven't been all season. There's a reason some of these players were calling Marc-Andre Fleury the team's MVP even while touting Evgeni Malkin as league MVP. They know how often Fleury bails them out.

Fleury was good enough to do that in the 4-3 overtime loss in Game 1, too, except for one thing: His teammates stopped moving forward.

Everything from Ray Shero's shaping of the roster to Bylsma's the-puck-is-ours system to the players' standard mindset is predicated on the attack. And yet, over and over Wednesday, the Penguins failed to go "north," to borrow one of Bylsma's favorite terms. They made senseless lateral passes. They retreated when they should have forechecked. They tried to beat defensemen at the Philadelphia blueline rather than simply dumping it behind them and forcing the Flyers to travel the full 200 feet to score.

The latter, in particular, shouldn't have been a novel concept with a three-goal lead.

Philadelphia's forwards, thus, were afforded ample opportunity to follow Peter Laviolette's plan of slipping pucks — and people — behind the Penguins' defense. The Flyers found a way to play where they wanted, how they wanted, pretty much as often as they wanted.

"You saw the first period: We played in our zone and paid the price," Philadelphia right winger Daniel Briere said of the Penguins' 3-0 start. "The rest of the way, I thought we did a much better job of putting their defensemen to work, making them turn and go get pucks. It's something we have to do."

And that's because, as Flyers left winger Brayden Schenn said, "They're an offensive bunch over there. When they have a lot of offensive guys, they don't like playing in their own end."

Don't like?

The Penguins looked like they outright hated it: Jordan Staal lost track of Jakub Voracek on the OT goal. Kris Letang failed to intercept the harmless-looking pass to Voracek. Crosby screened Fleury on an earlier goal. Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek ... well, you know.

But that's goal-line defense, and not even the '75 Steelers were great in the shadows of goal posts.

These Penguins aren't exactly the Blues or Devils in their own zone. When they're flatfooted, they're a mess. And that's all the more reason to get to the other end with a purpose and stick around awhile.

"We had chances to put the puck behind them, chip it in like we did in the first period. We had a chance to make a statement about how we manage the puck with a three-goal lead," Bylsma said afterward. "We didn't do that."

Bylsma emphasized that with a morning-after video presentation.

"If you watch the second half of the game, they chipped the puck on us every single time," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "So we got to watch all their plays and how many times they got to hit our defensemen. They just played a simple game. They created everything off their forecheck. That's something we can learn from."

It might be the only practical lesson, actually.

Look, this isn't to suggest the Penguins will right themselves with Xs and Os alone. There's much on which they can improve, not least of which are a sharper power play with Steve Sullivan expected back on the point, a ton more from the Evgeni Malkin line and a whole new level of urgency.

But the Penguins just being the Penguins will be paramount.

Photo Galleries

Game 1 Penguins vs. Flyers 4/11/12

Game 1 Penguins vs. Flyers  4/11/12

The Flyers defeat the Penguins, 4-3 in overtime, in Game 1 of their Stanley Cup playoff series.

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