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After 24 games, Penguins still see work to be done

Friday, 03.08.2013 / 9:20 AM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- All Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has to do to make his point about what happens when his team plays the right way as opposed to what happens when it plays the wrong way is pop in the DVD of the game Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center.

At the halfway point of the Penguins season, that may be exactly what Bylsma chooses to do. There's enough visual evidence to make him go hoarse talking to his team.

"In the first period we just weren't very good in a lot of areas and we gave them more 3-on-2s than they scored on, more opportunities than they scored on," Bylsma said following the Penguins' 5-4 come-from-behind win against the Philadelphia Flyers. "Then you have to look at the flip side of it, where we were very good in the second and that carried into the third."

The Penguins were good enough in the second and third periods to earn a win that preserved their five-point lead over New Jersey in the Atlantic Division standings -- but still left them seeking answers for the defensive woes that they just can't seem to shake.

Pittsburgh is 5-3-0 in its past eight games despite giving up 33 goals, including eight power-play goals -- an average of more than four goals against, including one power-play goal per game.

The Penguins have survived by scoring 34 goals over the past eight games.

"The goals-against is something we're not thrilled with, but the good thing is it's not beating us right now," defenseman Brooks Orpik told NHL.com. "But obviously that kind of crept into our game last year down the stretch and we got into the playoffs and we weren't good at all against a really good Flyers team."

He's dead on -- and maybe that's why the Penguins weren't as giddy about the comeback win as some of their fans back in Pittsburgh may have been.

As impressive as it was to come back from a 4-1 hole, the fact is Pittsburgh put itself in that hole.

"There were some bad bounces, but we got outplayed in the first period in just about every aspect," Orpik said. "Whether it was bad bounces or not, all the bounces were in our zone because they were playing in our zone. We just had a real bad 20 minutes, but I liked the way we played in the second and third."

It's not surprising that Pittsburgh crushed the Flyers with a high-powered attack in the second period, when Pascal Dupuis, James Neal and Tyler Kennedy responded with three unanswered goals to tie the game at 4-4.

The Penguins' ability to score goals is well-known, and it's been on display on an almost nightly basis this season -- to the tune of a League-best 3.54 goals-per-game.

"We just sat back and when you do that, [Evgeni] Malkin and [Sidney] Crosby, these guys that are snipers and make plays," Philadelphia forward Scott Hartnell said.

Lately, the Penguins have been making enough plays to mask the defensive woes and penalty-killing problems that continued to plague them in the first period, when they allowed four goals, including two power-play goals, to fall into a three-goal hole.

The Penguins are in the bottom-third of the NHL in defense, giving up 2.96 goals per game. They're 20th in penalty-killing at 79.4 percent.

It's not hurting them now, but they learned last season -- when they gave up 30 goals in a six-game series loss to Philadelphia -- that bad defense is almost impossible to overcome in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We know that we're going to win some games by just being good offensively because we have so much talent up front and we have great goaltending, but what we're looking for right now is being tough to play against," defenseman Kris Letang told NHL.com. "We want to make sure that every time they come out of their zone they just want to dump it. That's about grinding them down in their zone and that's what we need to get to."

That's what the Penguins did get to in the third period Thursday.

Chris Kunitz scored the go-ahead goal 18 seconds into the period and Pittsburgh was able to hold the lead by using a strong forecheck, managing the puck well and playing smartly in the defensive zone. The Penguins limited the Flyers' quality scoring chances and also got 11 saves from Tomas Vokoun, who picked up his fifth win of the season by stopping 14 shots in relief of Marc-Andre Fleury.

"It was different," Orpik said. "When we played them in the playoffs last year, if we would have gotten behind 4-1 in the first period, especially in this building, it would have ended up maybe 7-1. It would have snowballed on us. I think [Thursday night] we really did a good job staying composed."

So maybe the Penguins will look back at the third period of their 24th game in a 48-game season and say that's when they turned the corner and became a reliable, if not overwhelming, defensive team.

"Honestly, we didn't do anything crazy," Letang said. "It was playing the right way, putting pucks deep and making sure they don't have an easy breakout every time. That was a big turning point in the game. We played just a simple game."

The Penguins still have enough firepower to score when they play a simple game. If they do it more often, they won't always need five goals to win.

"As soon as we get to the offensive zone we know we're going to create because, like I said, we have so much talent," Letang said. "But it's putting it in our brain that we need not turn the puck over by not trying to do fancy plays."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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