There are many reasons why the Penguins have played so well in their last two games to cut their 3-0 opening round series deficit to the Philadelphia Flyers to 3-2 on the strength of back-to-back victories in Games 4 and 5.
But the most obvious area of improvement for the Penguins has been the play of their team defense.
The Penguins allowed 20 goals in the first three games. It’s no wonder they fell down 3-0 in the series.
But thanks to a positioning adjustment by the Penguins coaching staff, over the last two games, both wins for Pittsburgh, the Penguins held Philadelphia to five goals, and only two goals over the last five periods.
“We did a good job on our forecheck. We didn’t turn the puck over as much as we did in the first few games,” said defenseman Kris Letang
about the improved defensive play. “That’s our game, forechecking and playing down low.”
What’s more, the Penguins defensive play in 5-on-5 situations have been spectacular. Philadelphia hasn’t scored a 5-on-5 goal since 27 seconds into the third period of Game 3 (a 139:33-minute span).
One area where the Flyers created problems for the Penguins early in the series was with quick transitions, often off turnovers, to counterattack. Philadelphia was especially effective on long passing from its defensive zone up ice to create odd-man rushes.
The Penguins have countered that by having a forward high in the offensive zone, the F-3. That forward has the responsibility of providing puck support and offense, but must quickly get into a defensive posture in case of turnovers or a Flyers’ counter attack.
Thus, the number odd-man rushes, which seemed so numerous early in the series, have been limited in the past two games. And even when the Flyers have countered with even numbers, the lack of open ice has forced them to either dump the puck or turn it over.
“Having a high F-3 and having them tracking back hard to force them to dump the puck or making a play they don’t want to make. That’s huge for us,” defenseman Deryk Engelland
said. “We’re standing up rushes rather than sitting back and letting them get behind us and giving them breakaway after breakaway. If we keep them in front of us with a high F-3 in the offensive zone then we’re pretty good.”
And if the Flyers dump the puck, Pittsburgh’s defenders have been much better at retrieving the puck and getting it out of the zone quickly.
“It’s execution, details,” Engelland said. “I think we’re retrieving pucks well, getting them up to our forwards and letting them go on the rush.”
And of course, the biggest key to any strong defense has to come from the man between the pipes. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
has regained his MVP form, especially with his 24-save performance in Game 5.
“The big key has been ‘Flower,’” Engelland said. “He’s been unbelievable the last two games making big saves when you need them. You need that. That’s a huge part of it.”
“He was just unbelievable,” Letang said. “He is really strong. On top of his game like I’ve seen him many times this year.”