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Penguins in midst of remarkable defensive turnaround | TribLIVE.com
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Penguins in midst of remarkable defensive turnaround

Jonathan Bombulie
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Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson (28) and Dallas Stars defenseman Ben Lovejoy (21) get tangled up during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Dallas, Saturday, March 23, 2019.
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Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Erik Gudbranson (44) skates during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Friday, March. 1, 2019, in Buffalo N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
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Buffalo Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues (71) is pushed into the net by Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson (28) during the third period on Friday, March. 1, 2019, in Buffalo N.Y.
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Defensemen Brian Dumoulin (above) and Erik Gudbranson (right) have helped the Penguins to a 9-2-3 record since the NHL trade deadline.
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It’s not all that surprising the Pittsburgh Penguins have one of the best records in hockey since the NHL trade deadline.

They’re a talented, veteran group that has been through the wringer of an 82-game schedule before.

They know when it’s time to buckle down.

What’s shocking is exactly how they have managed to put together a 9-2-3 record since Feb. 25.

A franchise built on high-flying offense over the past five decades suddenly has become one of the stingiest teams in the league.

Before the deadline, the Penguins allowed a mediocre 3.11 goals per game, which ranked 16th in the league. Since then, they’re allowing 2.14, which ranks third-best.

“I think it’s a conscious adjustment we made,” center Matt Cullen said. “What we were doing before was playing too loose. You’re flipping a coin on whether you’re going to come out on top. As a group, we’ve made a shift. We’ve talked about it. We’ve shifted our game toward a playoff-style game.”

The impetus for the shift probably was related to personnel. With Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin injured in the Feb. 23 outdoor game and Erik Gudbranson arriving two days later via trade, the Penguins suddenly had a defensive group more suited to doggedly protecting the high-leverage scoring areas than pinching aggressively in the offensive zone.

So they played to their strengths.

The forwards got the message too, rarely getting caught without a third man high in the offensive zone.

One stat best illustrates the transformation. Before the trade deadline, the Penguins were giving up 11.2 high-danger scoring chances per game, which was 11th-most in the league. Those are the odd-man rushes and point-blank rebound opportunities that haunted them early in the season.

Since the deadline, they’re giving up 8.7 per game, which ranks third-best in the league.

“I think it’s just playing a little bit more as a unit, playing as six guys out there, including the goalie,” winger Bryan Rust said. “Just kind of communicating and doing what needs to be done. I think situational awareness has been key for us, too, knowing when to try to make plays and when to make the simple, safe play and move on to the next one.”

Staring down fewer Grade-A scoring chances has agreed with Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith, as well. Before the deadline, Penguins goalies were eighth in the league with a .924 even-strength save percentage. Since, they’re second at .952.

“I think we’ve really rallied around Murray and Casey,” defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. “Their play has set the tone.”

Before the rest of the Eastern Conference starts quivering in fear of a Penguins team that learned how to play defense like the tour championship field did when Happy Gilmore learned how to putt, an issue needs to be resolved.

This new-look Penguins team hasn’t scored quite as much as the old-look one did. Their goals-for average has dropped from 3.4 before the deadline to 3.0 since.

There hasn’t been a substantial change in the amount of shots or high-danger scoring chances they’ve been generating since the deadline, though. The biggest difference is shooting percentage. They were fifth in the league at 9.0 percent before and 26th at 5.9 percent since.

That gives Cullen reason for optimism.

“I think we probably generate more scoring chances this way than the other way,” Cullen said. “We’ve run into some pretty good goaltending here of late, but generating scoring chances hasn’t really been an issue.”

If he’s right, well, that’s when things could start to get very interesting around here.

“Every group has to find their way a little bit,” Cullen said. “It’s taken us a little while, but our game is definitely going in the right direction.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Penguins
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