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Improving Penguins defense a collective effort

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, 7:24 p.m.
The Canadiens’ Brendan Gallagher gets the puck past Penguins goaltender Matt Murray for a goal in the first period Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
The Canadiens’ Brendan Gallagher gets the puck past Penguins goaltender Matt Murray for a goal in the first period Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.

A lot of problems a hockey team runs into during the course of a season can be addressed in small-group meetings.

If a team has leaky goaltending, it can get its two netminders together with the goalie coach for some remedial work.

If a team has a putrid power play, an assistant coach can sit down the five players on the top unit in front of a video screen and show them what’s what.

The predicament the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in after a poor defensive start to the season is a different story. Giving up 11 goals in two games was a group effort. Finding a way to tighten things up probably will be, too.

“It’s not any one position,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Becoming a team that’s hard to play against is a collective effort from the five guys or the six guys that are on the ice. We simply have to get better at it.”

When a team struggles defensively, the first fingers often are pointed at its defensemen. After all, the word “defense” is in their job title.

That’s fair, to a degree, in the case of the Penguins. Through two games, all six defensemen who have played have been on the ice for at least three even-strength goals against.

In an effort to shake things up, Sullivan has inserted training camp standout Juuso Riikola into the top six in place of Olli Maatta all week long in practice.

Will that shock the system of the defense corps as a whole? Jack Johnson said he wasn’t sure about that, but he does expect a better performance from the group Thursday night against Vegas than they managed in a 5-1 loss to Montreal on Saturday.

“You always feel responsible as a defenseman, but I think last game in particular, I think everybody feels like they could have played better, could have done more,” Johnson said. “I think everyone in here would have borderline suited up and played again that night just to rectify it, which is a good thing. Guys care. Everyone’s in here for the same reason and the same cause.”

There haven’t been any commensurate personnel changes up front in practice this week, but that by no means absolves forwards from blame for the defensive troubles of the first two games.

Back pressure has become a buzzword in the modern game. Forwards must provide it, or opposing teams will waltz into the offensive zone without a care. That’s an area where the Penguins have plenty of room for improvement.

“If a ‘D’ sees you as a forward coming back and backchecking, they can step up. They can play more aggressive on the guy coming at them,” winger Carl Hagelin said. “You know yourself as a forward, if there’s a guy backchecking, it makes it harder to make a play because you have a stick coming from behind. Then all of a sudden you look up, and the D’s in your face. I think that’s what they need.”

The only player who dressed for the first two games with no blood on his hands is backup goalie Casey DeSmith. He’ll have to be part of the recovery, however.

With Matt Murray out with a concussion, DeSmith will have to play well in his season debut for the team’s efforts at defensive improvement to take root.

“If I play well and I let in four or I play well and let in zero, as long as I play my best, I’ll be happy with my performance. I’ll just focus on myself,” DeSmith said. “Tons of good players in this locker room. We’ll figure out.”

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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