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Weekes: Penguins playing to their strengths now

by Kevin Weekes / NHL.com

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a new look under first-year coach Mike Johnston and so far you can't argue with the results. Most impressive about the Penguins is they are playing to their strengths, which are speed and skill.

You'll see them both on display against the Philadelphia Flyers in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET).

When the Penguins played their best under former coach Dan Bylsma they were playing to their strengths, and it wasn't at the expense of their defense. The times they got into trouble are when they fell in love with their offense so that came at the expense of their defense. But when they were at their best they weren't mutually exclusive.

In an attempt to find the right balance last season they started to give the puck away with a lot of chip and chase out of fear of having a neutral-zone turnover. They started to have a lot of stretch passes in their game, stretch passes that followed with a tip and then they went down into the zone to chase.

Why?

When you look at the five players they had on the ice there wasn't a reason for them to do a stretch pass and then a tip to go hunt it down. They didn't have to do that. They didn't have to give the puck away. They could have attacked and gotten a clean zone entry, set up along the wall and gone into a cycle to create more motion in the offense.

They have made some big changes to that this season under Johnston.

Their breakouts feature a lot more direct passes, more tape-to-tape passes. And if it is an indirect pass, it's an indirect pass to speed, where one of their players has a chance at puck recovery or it leads to a 50-50 race and it's someone like Pascal Dupuis, Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin hunting someone down. It's someone that can contest the race for the chance to recover the puck.

So their passing is better and their breakouts as a result are better. Their forwards also are giving the defense more outlets, and they're using short passes as opposed to long passes. They have been supporting closely and that helps.

Think about it: If it's close support and it's Kris Letang to Malkin along the half wall and then Dupuis supporting Malkin with speed, I like my chances with any of those players touching the puck. It's that close support game and they're doing a lot more of it in all three zones.

Players have more confidence to make plays as a result of these things, and as a result they're generating offense from their own goal line. But it's not a stretch pass or a hope play; it's a short D-to-D to low center passing play, or a defenseman to wing to center play. They're coming at you and attacking in different ways, and it's not with the hope plays we saw a lot of last season.

That's the Johnston influence.

Johnston and assistant coach Rick Tocchet recognize they have the personnel to play a speed and skill game. To their credit they decided that was one of the adjustments they wanted to make. That makes a lot of sense.

As a result the Penguins are going to make it harder on the Flyers on Wednesday because of how they attack and because the Flyers still seem to be a work in progress on the back end and in goal.

Flyers coach Craig Berube has done a great job and they have some nice pieces in Philadelphia, but when they don't get Grade-A goaltending they're more apt to get burned because their defensive core has not been fully addressed yet.

The Flyers have some depth up front with Claude Giroux, who is a top-15 player in the world, and Wayne Simmonds, who is playing the best of anybody on the team right now. But they don't have much margin for error on the defensive side; Pittsburgh can exploit that.

What we still need to see from the Penguins is more production from their so-called bottom-six group of forwards, but there's a way for Johnston to get more out of those players.

It wouldn't be a bad idea if he throws those players a bone every once in a while by double-shifting Crosby or Malkin. There is no way that Crosby or Malkin would complain about more ice time, and players like Craig Adams, Blake Comeau, Steve Downie and Nick Spaling can skate with them.

When I was with the New York Rangers I can remember Jaromir Jagr asking coach Tom Renney for more ice time. Jagr wanted Renney to put him on a line with Ryan Hollweg and Dominic Moore. Jagr knew they could skate and they were decent in their role so he thought, "Get me out there and we might create something, or if nothing else we get extended zone time to wear out the other team and now who are they coming back with for the next line?"

Doing things like that keeps the opposing coach guessing. Having that interchange ability is essential to success through an 82-game season and in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Penguins had that from Maxime Talbot when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009. They can have it again from someone else.

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