Despite talent-rich roster, Penguins frown on run-and-gun hockey
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ season-opening 7-6 overtime win over the Washington Capitals on Thursday night was a throwback to previous eras of NHL hockey.
The outcome was determined not as much by intricate coaching strategies and impeccable modern goaltending technique as it was by offensive talent and who had the puck last.
Is this something hockey fans should get used to?
The Penguins and Capitals have proven teams can take the fast lane to a Stanley Cup championship. The game is always changing, and rosters are evolving with it. Could 7-6 final scores be the wave of the future?
Evgeni Malkin isn’t ruling it out.
“It’s a new game from the last 10 years,” Malkin said. “New faces. New young players. They skate so much faster. We see no tough guys. The fourth line, third line, they play a fast game, too. Defensemen, there aren’t many big defensemen. They’re young. They’re strong, but they skate so good.”
If the game does end up trending in an offensive direction, it won’t be because the Penguins are intentionally pushing it that way. Not at the expense of playing defense, anyway.
Coach Mike Sullivan frequently says his team needs to avoid trading chance for chance with opponents, letting the game disintegrate into a track meet.
But why? With the talent the Penguins have, wouldn’t they win a lot more track meets than they’d lose? After all, under Sullivan, the Penguins are 19-3-3 when both they and their opponent score at least four goals in a game.
“Because you can’t control it,” Sullivan said.
He used Thursday night’s opener as an example.
“Obviously we were pleased with the result of the game, but if we played that game 10 times over, we’d win five and lose five, and that’s not a formula for success,” Sullivan said. “For that reason, that’s not the type of game that we want to play. We want to be able to control outcomes and dictate play out there.”
But isn’t that because Washington is one of the few teams in the league that can match the Penguins in firepower? If the Penguins decided to trade chances with their opponent Saturday night, the Montreal Canadiens, wouldn’t they have a significant advantage?
No, Sullivan said.
The Canadians have more than enough offensive talent to finish the kind of opportunities they’d get if the Penguins decided to run and gun with them. All NHL teams do.
“I don’t really think it matters who your opponent is,” Sullivan said. “I think if you’re trading chance for chance, you’re playing a high-risk game. On some nights it’s going to work for you, and on other nights it’s not. I’ve never seen that be a formula for success in controlling outcomes night in and night out.”
While Sullivan makes a compelling case for defensive responsibility, his players still have to buy into the concept.
Three of the NHL’s top 10 scorers from last season are in the Penguins locker room. It has to be awfully tempting for them, on some nights anyway, to try to bait opponents into a scoring contest.
They avoid the temptation much more often than not.
“You’re probably 50-50. You’re not really tilting it in your favor with the percentages that way,” Sidney Crosby said. “We don’t necessarily need to do that to give ourselves a good chance to win. I think we can play a pretty solid, tight defensive game and still generate more than enough offensively. I think the mindset is if you do defend well, you’re going to give yourself more opportunity to play offense.”
Even Malkin concedes 7-6 probably isn’t the most repeatable formula for success.
“I hope we score seven goals,” he said, “but not six against.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.