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Defensive transformation a big part of Penguins' run

by Chris Adamski

PITTSBURGH -- Contrary to popular belief -- and to some good-natured ribbing from teammates in the locker room -- Mark Eaton is not the sole cause for the Pittsburgh Penguins' defensive resurgence in recent weeks.

The stay-at-home defenseman was signed late last month and made his season debut in a March 2 victory at the Montreal Canadiens.

Pittsburgh hasn't lost since. What's more, the Penguins have the appearance of an entirely different team defensively during March.

It can't be entirely a coincidence, can it?

"I can't take any credit for that," Eaton said with a look that was part amused and part horrified that he'd claim he's the reason for the turnaround in Pittsburgh's defensive fortunes.

"It's the whole team just shoring things up here and there. It was a matter of time before things got rectified and doesn't have anything to do with me."

But if it's not Eaton, what has caused Pittsburgh to go from what was one of the NHL's worst statistical defensive teams to what has been one of its best over the past two weeks?


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Pittsburgh had a goals-against average of more than 3.00 through its first 25 games, but has been at 1.00 over the past five games.

More striking, over a seven-plus-game stretch from Feb. 20 through the first intermission of a game at the Philadelphia Flyers on March 7, the Penguins allowed 36 goals in 22 periods.

Since, they've allowed nine goals in their past 20 periods.

It's no surprise that those numbers, particularly when coupled with the League's top offense, have produced a nine-game winning streak heading into Tuesday night's game against the Washington Capitals.

"I don't think it was something that just happened then," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said of the defensive transformation. "It's been something that's been in our minds for a while. It just takes something to just see it and identify it and then to kind of repeat it too.

"That's been our mindset for a long time -- but it's something that we had to get used to doing."

It's no secret the Penguins have the firepower to outscore teams on many nights. Featuring a lineup that contains four of the League's top 20 scorers in addition to its reigning scoring champion when all are healthy, the Penguins' 3.53 goals per game leads the NHL by a relatively wide margin.

Pittsburgh scored at least three goals in all but one of a stretch of 16 games that ended Sunday in a win against the Boston Bruins. It was fitting the Penguins won that day scoring twice during a game in which first place in the Eastern Conference was on the line.

"You want to win a game however it's going to happen," said wing Chris Kunitz, who leads the League with a plus-24 rating. "Whether it's play better defense or if we need to score goals, we'll hopefully be able to turn that switch to score goals.

"But we want to play a good defensive game to help out our goalie and not leave them out there to face 2-on-1 rushes or 3-on-2s. … We want to go out and just play a good game, and that's being good structurally in the defensive zone."

Kunitz referenced the Penguins' performance during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring. The team averaged a League-high 4.3 goals per game, but lost in the first round to the Flyers because of a defense that allowed a staggering five goals per contest.

The postseason was an extension of the final 14 games of the regular season in which the Penguins were seemingly rolling (9-4-1 record, 4.5 goals per game) upon the return of Crosby from injury.

In actuality, though, the barrage of goals was merely a mirage to take the team's attention from a defense that allowed five or more goals four times over the final nine games of the regular season.

The 2012-13 Penguins had a very similar look to the 2012 postseason edition through the first period of that March 7 game at Philadelphia. The Flyers led, 4-1, at that point and had 18 shots.

Many players insist nothing special was said in the Wells Fargo Center visitors locker room during that first intermission that would become such a turning point.

But the Penguins allowed 14 shots over the final two periods in coming back for a 5-4 victory. More telling, they've allowed six even-strength goals during the six games since.

"It's six guys, including the goalie, playing their part," Eaton said. "It's not just the D-men; it's our forwards have been great with their positioning in the offensive zone, and that dictates a lot as to how we can play rushes and setting up in our defensive zone. It's kind of a full team effort of all six guys on the ice."

Armed with the memory of last season's playoff meltdown, the Penguins clearly prefer to rely on defense to win games, no matter how prolific their offense might appear to be.

They also recognize that the improved play in their own end has been a phenomenon of a mere two weeks. It's what happens come the playoffs that will matter most.

"It's been too small of a window so far," Eaton said. "It's something we have to continue -- and continue into the playoffs.

"Right now there's 18 games left, and we're still a work in progress. We want to keep getting better, keep working on things and just tune up for when it really counts."

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