Penguins say they need to play smart to make playoff push in second half of season
The Penguins pushed their season off the brink by going 8-3-0 in January.
If they want to avoid further peril as they return from the All-Star break with a Tuesday home game against San Jose to begin the stretch drive, they don't have to be faster, stronger or more skilled.
They just have to be smart.
January's resurgence coincided with a return to a fast, aggressive style of play for the Penguins, one reminiscent of the one they used to scorch the playoff field en route to the 2016 Stanley Cup championship.
Their forecheckers are quick and pesky. Their defensemen are opportunistic and on their toes.
It's a style that helped the Penguins up their per-game average for goals from 2.77 in the first three months of the season to 3.64 in January.
With that power comes responsibility, however. There's a fine line between playing aggressively and recklessly.
Take the team's defensemen, for example, especially those with an offensive bent to their game like Kris Letang and Justin Schultz.
To have a dangerous attack in the modern NHL, defensemen must join the rush in transition and pinch in from the point in the offensive zone. They just have to make sure they make better decisions with the puck than if they simply were dumping it in and retreating.
“Teams are so good at backchecking these days that you need that fourth, fifth guy on the attack,” Schultz said. “It's part of today's game. Everybody is doing it. I think we're just trying to get back to that style of play.”
Now look at the team's forwards. The best way for the Penguins to achieve coach Mike Sullivan's stated goal of being harder to play against is to antagonize opponents on the forecheck. Forwards have to make sure they don't go barreling into the offensive zone like maniacs, and they have to be careful to cover for defensemen who take an adventurous tack.
“We want to use our speed as much as we can,” winger Conor Sheary said. “Definitely the forecheck is a big part of that. I think early in the year we were maybe a little hesitant when we should have gone and vice versa. When we're getting back to that, we're hard to play against. We're doing that right now.”
Despite their successful January, the Penguins aren't home free in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
They hit the All-Star break with 57 points, tied with Columbus for second place in the Metropolitan Division, six points behind first-place Washington.
The Penguins play 17 of their 32 remaining games at home, and they have to leave the Eastern time zone only once, for a two-game trip to Dallas and St. Louis next month. Seven of their last 12 games are against teams not currently in a playoff position.
While that sounds rosy, there is danger right around the corner. The six teams in second through seventh place in the division are separated by two points, and the Penguins already have played more games than all their rivals.
They also have a glaring weak spot in the lineup at center on the bottom two lines, and that's a hole general manager Jim Rutherford will have to work to fill before the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
All it would take to put their playoff position back in peril is a short losing streak.
To stop that from happening, they have to make sure they play smart.
“If we're getting back as hard as we know we can, we shouldn't be giving up odd-man rushes,” Sheary said. “I think there are breakdowns in a game where the other team is going to take advantage and get those chances, but I think if we can limit them as much as we can, we'll be a little bit more successful.”