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Defensemen Step Up To Provide Offense For Pittsburgh

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
In the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs both the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens have focused their game plans around stopping the Penguins’ high-flying offensive attack.

While holding Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Co. off the scoreboard is a difficult task that few have perfected during Pittsburgh’s last three postseason runs, both the Senators and Canadiens have managed to pull off the feat at various times through the first 11 postseason games.

Most teams might find themselves in a precarious position if their main guns were held off the scoreboard, but not the Penguins. Instead, other players step to the forefront to provide the secondary scoring required to pick up the 16 wins necessary to raise the Stanley Cup.

On Saturday night it was the Penguins’ defensive corps which provided the secondary scoring as Kris Letang and Sergei Gonchar notched both of Pittsburgh’s goals in a 2-1 win which gives the flightless birds a 3-2 series advantage over the Montreal Canadiens. The Penguins are now one victory shy of eliminating the blue blanc et rouge and advancing to their third consecutive Eastern Conference Finals.

“There are certainly going to be guys who get a majority of the points, but the playoffs are always about the storyline of getting secondary scoring and a game-winning goal from an unexpected source,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “Our defense has been good in that regard throughout the playoffs. Tonight it was Kris Letang’s turn and Sergei Gonchar’s turn to get those goals we needed at the right times. That’s how you win hockey games.”

Winning hockey games against the Canadiens, particularly as this series has unfolded, has required the Penguins to grind out close contests and rely on tips, rebounds and screens to get pucks behind Jaroslav Halak based upon the way Montreal is employing its defensive-zone coverage.

When the Penguins are able to get to their game against Montreal and establish a cycle and a forecheck in the offensive zone, the Canadiens are simply collapsing all five players into the house area, which is opening up opportunities for Pittsburgh to work the puck back to their point men for shots.

“That is the plan,” Gonchar said. “If you look these teams, they are playing really well in front of their net because they are trying to collapse and help their defense. That is why the points are open. Going into the series we knew that was one of the things they do. We just have to generate a lot of shots from the defense because of the way they are playing.”

Not only were the Penguins able to generate some good looks for their defensemen on Saturday, but they also made sure to take advantage of the open shots Montreal was conceding thanks to the ability of highly-skilled blueliners such as Gonchar, Letang and Alex Goligoski to wait for shooting lanes to open and traffic to build around Halak.

“I think we have some time at the blue line to take some shots,” Letang said. “Our forwards played really well down low cycling the puck and creating scoring chances out top. We just had to shoot it.”

Letang opened the scoring for the Penguins on a power play late in the first period, taking a pass from Evgeni Malkin at the left point and laying into a drive which sailed past the blocker of Halak at the 18:18 mark. It was Letang’s fourth goal of the postseason, tying his career high set last spring.

Gonchar said he is impressed with the way the 23-year-old Letang seems to be elevating his game to another level during the playoffs, especially at key moments in games when the Penguins need goals the most.

“It seems like in the playoffs he is stepping up with his shot,” Gonchar said. “It seems like he has that focus to get the puck on net more as he is generating a lot of shots and as a result he is scoring goals.”

While Letang is just beginning his postseason resume, Gonchar continues to find ways to build upon his.

The Penguins were still clinging onto the 1-0 lead Letang gave them at the tail end of the first period when the Penguins' fourth line went to work midway through period two.

A good cycle behind the Montreal net by Mark Letestu and Mike Rupp sucked the Canadiens on top of their own net, allowing Letestu to slip a pass to Brook Orpik at the left point. Orpik laid a perfect feed over to Gonchar at the right point, and the Russian defenseman walked into a laser which sailed through traffic and past Halak to stake Pittsburgh to a 2-0 lead.

After the game, Gonchar was quick to credit the net-front presence the Penguins had on each of their goals – Sidney Crosby and Bill Guerin on Letang’s and Rupp on his – as reasons the point shots were finding a way behind Halak.

“On both goals we scored the goalie didn’t have a chance to stop the puck,” Gonchar said. “I think that is a result of that traffic. We have to stick with that.”

Through the first five games Pittsburgh has 14 points (5G-9A) from its defensemen, with Gonchar (2G-2A) and Goligoski (1G-3A) leading all Penguins scorers with four points apiece.

If the Penguins continue to receive such offensive production from their back end on Monday night, they will put themselves in a great position to finally dispose of the never-say-die Cinderella story the Canadiens have become.

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