ShareThis Page
Penguins

Penguins making foes take notice with their commitment to defense

| Monday, March 9, 2015, 9:36 p.m.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save on the Kings' Jeff Carter as Tyler Toffoli stands by Saturday, March 7, 2015, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Getty Images
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save on the Kings' Jeff Carter as Tyler Toffoli stands by Saturday, March 7, 2015, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

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.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me