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Defense-oriented Penguins feel they're set for playoffs

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are nearly unrecognizable.

They have been one of the NHL's more explosive teams throughout the past decade. Having forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin centering the top two lines has that effect. The tandem has combined to lead the League in points per game each of the past five seasons, with Crosby first on each occasion except 2010-11.

That production has led to Pittsburgh averaging 3.16 goals per game entering this season since Crosby's rookie year of 2005-06.

Some things stay the same. Crosby leads the NHL in scoring with 79 points, two more than Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek entering their game at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, SN1). But that has not translated into overall offensive success like it had in his previous nine seasons with Pittsburgh.

"I think this time of year, it's about us," Penguins assistant coach Gary Agnew said. "We've got to make sure we've got our game fine-tuned to where it has to be heading into the last couple of weeks and into the playoffs. [Wednesday] is just another fine-tune game for us."

The Penguins are ranked 17th with 2.71 goals per game. That is their lowest mark since averaging 2.32 in 2003-04, when they finished 23-47-8-4, placed last in the Atlantic Division, and trudged through an 18-game losing streak that included 17 regulation losses and one in overtime.

Pittsburgh is not the same as it was a season ago. It's also not the same as the 2003-04 version. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury summed it up best.

"Even though we're not scoring as much, we're not giving up as much," he said.

These Penguins are battling with the New York Islanders for second in the Metropolitan Division, despite offensive struggles that include failing to score more than two regulation goals in seven of their past nine games.

In 15 March games, the Penguins were held to one goal or fewer seven times, resulting in possibly their worst month of the season. Pittsburgh finished March 7-6-2 averaging 2.13 goals per game but rarely lost by more than two goals.

The difference between these Penguins and those of seasons past is they have evolved into a more defensive-oriented unit they feel will be more adept to facing the style of hockey required in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With six games remaining, Pittsburgh could allow its fewest goals since surrendering 188 in 1997-98. The Penguins have allowed 190 goals through 76 games, a 2.42 average that had them tied for fifth entering Tuesday with the Washington Capitals and Minnesota Wild.

"I think we are a little more sound defensively and a little more careful defensively," Fleury said. "It's a little bit of a different type of game out there. We've missed a few guys for a good part of [March], but once we get guys back in the lineup, that's when we score some goals and if we have that good foundation of playing defense, I think that will help us in the playoffs, for sure."

An offseason roster overhaul following the departure of general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma began this transformation.

Forwards James Neal and Jussi Jokinen, who ranked fourth and fifth in scoring on the Penguins, left; GM Jim Rutherford traded Neal to the Nashville Predators for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

Rutherford's most notable free agent signing was defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who has been limited to 49 games because of various injuries, most notably a lingering concussion. Rutherford acquired forwards Steve Downie and Blake Comeau to create depth throughout the four lines while establishing a more defensive mindset.

Blake Comeau
Left Wing - PIT
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 29
SOG: 133 | +/-: 12
The trend has continued as this season has progressed. Defensemen Ian Cole and Ben Lovejoy were brought in prior to the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline. Forwards Maxim Lapierre and Daniel Winnik, the latter who recently played first-line left wing alongside Crosby in addition to serving as an emergency sixth defenseman, were previously acquired through trades.

The Penguins defense has been their strength, unlike in previous seasons. They feel it has provided a greater chance of winning the low-scoring, playoff-style games they have lost against the New York Rangers in the 2014 playoffs and the Boston Bruins the year prior.

That is now in doubt.

Pittsburgh is playing without defenseman Kris Letang, who sustained a concussion after his head hit the ice following a hit by Arizona Coyotes forward Shane Doan on Saturday. Without Letang and Ehrhoff, the Penguins are down to five defensemen.

"It's kind of new, other than the fact that we had to do it a few days [against Arizona]," Agnew said. "Just trying to manage their minutes as best we can. Still trying to get proper matchups when we can, and using the timeouts when we can to get the guys rested. Short shifts. One guy at a time. Just sort of mixing and matching and doing the best we can.

"The guys are handling it really well. They're making the right changes. We're getting off early. Certainly, the forwards have done a great job as well, making sure they're getting back and not letting our D get into too much trouble."

In their first game down to five defensemen, Pittsburgh had to survive a high-sticking call against Hornqvist that had it down a man through the final 3:49 of overtime against the San Jose Sharks on Sunday. The Penguins penalty kill, which is second behind the Wild with an 85.4-percent success rate, shut down San Jose's sixth-ranked power play, allowing Pittsburgh to win 3-2 in a shootout.

"We've been doing a good job all season," Fleury said. "The penalty kill is one of the top ones in the League. It was a big kill for us. It was a long four minutes, almost four, but they did great. They got some shots, but usually when you go 4-on-3 with the type of players they have on their team, it's tough to keep them off the boards.

"It's not an easy game to play, especially with five defensemen. … It doesn't seem to faze guys out there."

The win against the Sharks marked the second time in the past month they have produced a playofflike matchup. San Jose won March 9, 2-1 in a shootout.

The Penguins welcome playing playoff-style games down the stretch. It allows them to prepare for the hockey expected next month. Pittsburgh plays two potential playoff teams in its final six games, but will face the Flyers twice, which could produce the test they seek despite Philadelphia being eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday.

"I think with certain teams you're seeing down the stretch, some of the teams that maybe haven't had a successful season … I think there are jobs are up for grabs, they're trying new lineups, they're playing loose, they don't have anything to lose. So it's a more open style of game that you usually don't see in the playoffs," defenseman Paul Martin said.

"For a team getting ready for the playoffs, they want to keep it within their game plan. … For us, we don't play many [playoff teams] at all down the stretch, so I think you have to play no matter who you play. Different teams play different ways. But typically in the playoffs, it's not run-and-gun. It's more trying to play your game and do the right things."

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