Penguins making foes take notice with their commitment to defense
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Sharks coach Todd McLellan didn't mean to insult past Penguins teams. He meant to compliment the current squad.
He might have done both.
McLellan, in studying the Penguins before Monday's meeting, concluded there is something different about this team than in previous seasons. Defense, he said, isn't an afterthought.
“They aren't giving you things for free anymore,” McLellan said.
The Penguins' new style under coach Mike Johnston has sacrificed some offense. Twice during Dan Bylsma's tenure as coach — the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons — the Penguins led the league in scoring.
This season, they rank ninth in goals per game. While that total likely would be higher if not for the team's sluggish performance on the power play since November, the defensive approach the Penguins have adopted is receiving plenty of attention.
Only three teams — the Canadiens, Rangers and Blackhawks — have allowed fewer goals than the Penguins this season. And this despite the absence of two of their best defensive players, Pascal Dupuis and Olli Maatta, because of injury.
The Sharks believe goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's performance is only part of the story.
“He's obviously been great,” center Joe Pavelski said. “Nine shutouts is nine shutouts. But it's not just about him. They're playing some great defense in front of him.”
McLellan said the Penguins are more difficult to prepare for than in previous seasons. In the past, McLellan said, teams feared engaging in a shootout with the Penguins. Playing a physical, low-scoring game often was beneficial for opposing teams.
Now, attacking them is more challenging.
“It's a team mentality when I look at them,” McLellan said. “When you think Pittsburgh, you think dynamic offensive players, great one-on-one skill, a great power play. And they still have those things. But they don't give up very much at all anymore. In the past, the track meet maybe favored them.
“They still have some of that ability. We know it's going to be tough in the D-zone against them. But now they're doing things better defensively. It's much harder to get shots through against them than it used to be.”
Even the Penguins' best offensive players are buying in to a more conservative approach.
“It's something we've been committed to all year,” center Sidney Crosby said. “Our mentality has been to take care of things in our own end and to be structured. It doesn't always work out perfectly. You're going to give up goals. But we have been committed to it.”
Defenseman Ben Lovejoy has been back with the Penguins only for a week, but he sees a difference.
Lovejoy credits Johnston's system.
“I really like the style of defense we're playing,” he said. “It's incredibly smart. We give up one option, hopefully, in the offensive zone. It's a cross-ice pass to the defenseman, which is an incredibly hard pass to make. We're very smart defensively. We're in the right place.”
They might be in the right place in defensive rankings, too.
The last team to lead the NHL in scoring and win the Stanley Cup was the 1992 Penguins. A loose, offensive-minded style rarely works in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Conversely, the past two Stanley Cup champions have led the regular season in goals against average.
“Flower has been outstanding all season,” defenseman Kris Letang said of Fleury. “But it's everybody. It's a team game.”