Hits just keep on coming for Penguins defensemen
The Pittsburgh Penguins defense corps has taken a lot of hits lately.
Figuratively, there’s probably no greater body blow a defense can absorb than surrendering a lead late in regulation and losing in overtime or a shootout, and the Penguins have done that four times in their past 13 games.
Those are hits the Penguins will have to stop taking if they want to get anywhere in the postseason.
“There’s going to be goalies pulled down the stretch and through the playoffs. We definitely need to improve on that,” Jack Johnson said.
Literally, though, the team’s defensemen have taken a lot of hits as well.
According to naturalstattrick.com, six Penguins are among the top 10 in the NHL in hits received this season, and four of them are defensemen.
Marcus Pettersson leads the league with 202 hits taken. Olli Maatta (169), Brian Dumoulin (166) and Johnson (154) are in the top seven.
Those are hits the Penguins are willing to take … within reason, of course.
“Hitting is part of the game,” Johnson said. “It’s just kind of the way it is. You’ve got to go in the corners and get pucks out. Sometimes you have to take a hit to make a play. At the same time, you don’t want to keep getting hit. If you can make a play without getting hit, that’s ideal.”
There are several reasons Penguins defensemen take so many hits.
The first is clerical. Off-ice officials at each NHL arena have a slightly different definition of what level of body contact is required to constitute a hit. At PPG Paints Arena, hits seem to be recorded a little more liberally.
The second style of play. The Penguins’ shiftier offensive defensemen, Kris Letang and Justin Schultz, don’t find themselves in the top 10. The defensemen taking hits are bigger, rangier players with the willingness to absorb body contact but not necessarily the quickness to avoid it.
On top of that, under coach Mike Sullivan, Penguins defensemen are encouraged to move the puck in a north-south fashion as quickly as possible, forsaking east-west D-to-D passes whenever possible. That sometimes leaves them in the path of charging forecheckers.
Pettersson is a particularly interesting case.
This is only his second season in North America, and when the 22-year-old Swede was playing back home, he never faced the relentless checking assault NHL defensemen have to deal with.
“Just because it’s smaller ice, players are always closer to you,” Pettersson said. “On the bigger ice, they’re a little bit too far away and with the rules, that would be interference.”
Pettersson is also playing more games than he ever has before. In Sweden, he never topped 46 in the regular season. This year, he leads the league with 76. He could finish with 84 games played in an 82-game season thanks to Anaheim’s busier schedule before he was traded to the Penguins.
Pettersson said he’s holding up just fine.
“I think I’m still young and the trainers and strength and conditioning staff here do a great job keeping everybody fresh,” he said. “It’s the most fun time of the year, too. I don’t think of that too much.”
Still, though, he’d like to take a fewer hits if at all possible. It’s something he and assistant coach Sergei Gonchar have discussed.
“Gonchar was telling me I need to be a little bit better at evading hits,” Pettersson said. “Sometimes I have a tendency of looking at my pass too much after passing the puck instead of maybe changing my angle before the guy hits me. It’s something I’m aware of and can try to work on a little bit.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review assistant sports editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .