In a sport where defense usually dictates the tempo of the game, it’s no wonder goal-scorers have sacrificed highlight-reel performances to play the role of stopper during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings, the two teams vying for this season’s Stanley Cup, rank first and second, respectively, in goals-against average this spring, at 1.86 and 1.94. Each club has exhibited a commitment to fortifying its own end before springing on the attack. Detroit has yielded a League-low 23.6 shots per game in the playoffs, while Pittsburgh has given up 27.9, three fewer per game than in the regular season.
The Penguins, who need just four victories to celebrate their first Stanley Cup since 1992, have trampled the competition even though three bona fide point producers on the roster -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa -- have an insatiable appetite to deny, and not necessarily outscore, the opposition.
“This is a young team playing a mature game,’’ Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said. “They’re all committed defensively and this is what I like about our team. When you’re committed defensively, you give yourself a chance to win. We don’t want the other team to forecheck us that hard, so it’s a unit of five that’s got to do their job on the ice.’’
That mentality has given Pittsburgh high marks throughout the playoffs. The Penguins, currently 12-2 in the postseason, have toughened up in limiting all three of their playoff opponents in the neutral zone. The club is yielding almost one goal per game fewer than it did in the regular season (2.58), when it finished 10th in the League in that category. The Penguins also have scored a League-leading 3.64 goals per game in the playoffs after averaging 2.93 goals in the regular season. Penguins forward Ryan Malone
leads the team with 62 hits in the playoffs.
“When you’re winning, that’s the most important thing,’’ Crosby said. Crosby, who has four goals and a League-leading 17 assists in 14 playoff games, realizes the importance of back-checking this time of the season. In his team’s series-clinching Game 5 victory in the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers, it was Crosby’s ability to get back on defense that led to Pittsburgh’s third goal of the contest on the way to a 6-0 victory. Crosby was credited with a takeaway in the defensive zone before setting up Marian Hossa’s goal off the transition.
“I just did my best to get my stick on (Flyers center Mike Richards) in our end,’’ Crosby said. “I don’t think he expected somebody to be coming back, so I didn’t have to put much weight on my stick. I was able to just poke it away and saw Hossa coming up behind me.’’
In a 4-1 victory against the Flyers in Game 3 in Philadelphia, the Penguins conducted a clinic for containment in the neutral zone. Not only did the forwards remain patient, but the defensemen were decisive in filling the gaps in limiting the opposing forecheck.
Pittsburgh second-year center Jordan Staal, who has six goals, 33 hits and a team-leading 52.0-percent faceoff winning percentage this postseason, enjoys playing a two-way role.
“You want to be just great on both sides of the puck,’’ Staal said. “I take pride in applying a sound defensive game and make it a point to play well on both sides of the puck. The defensive side is something I’ve obviously played well on and I want to keep getting better.’’
Detroit, which ranked first in the regular season with a 2.18 GAA, has done even better in the postseason. Additionally, the team has averaged 3.44 goals through 16 playoff games after scoring at a 3.07 goals-per game clip in the regular season.
Detroit goalie Chris Osgood has been backing the superb defense-first approach his team has exhibited throughout the postseason. In the Western Conference Finals, the Wings limited Dallas to three power-play goals in 30 chances.
“We’re back-checking great,’’ Osgood said. “I think everyone talks about our defense, but it happens to be a team defense. We track guys back to the red line and make it difficult for them to make plays.’’
Many of Detroit’s elite forwards have stormed the defensive zone in support of Osgood, including Pavel Datsyuk (37 hits, 19 takeaways), Dallas Drake (34 hits), Tomas Holmstrom (31 hits) and Henrik Zetterberg (12 hits, 11 blocks, 15 takeaways). Still, there’s no question the team possesses an array of talent along the blue line.
Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski were a combined plus-67 during the regular season and now are a plus-15 in the playoffs. Additionally, the acquisition of Brad Stuart (34 hits, 18 blocked shots) via a trade with the Los Angeles Kings, and the vast improvement of Niklas Kronwall (12 assists) has benefited Osgood (10-2), who owns a League-low 1.60 GAA in the playoffs.
“We’re a tough team to play against,’’ Lidstrom said. “We keep teams on the outside and don’t give them a whole lot of chances in the slot. I feel we play well through the neutral zone and in our own end.
This is something we’ve worked on since training camp and our ability to push the opposing team to the outside and eliminate their shots is something we’ve been able to do the whole playoffs.’’
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.