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Defensive Excellence

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins have been a solid defensive team for the majority of the 2010-11 campaign. But when, say, Sidney Crosby explodes for a 25-game scoring streak, it’s easy to be dazzled by Pittsburgh’s offense.

But with top offensive guns – Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – sidelined, it’s become evident just how steady the Penguins’ defensive corps has become 53 games into the season.

That’s a testament to the players trusting in the team’s system, which assistant coach Todd Reirden, who works with the team’s defensemen, admitted has been revamped this season to become more defensive-oriented.

“Sometimes when you’re coming at things a little bit differently like we have this year – we have a little bit of a different approach to playing defense – it takes a little bit to adjust to sometimes,” Reirden said. “It is a process.”

But that process seems to have come together for the Penguins, who have won five-straight contests and eight of their last nine.

The Penguins have just a 1.86 goals-against average over their past 37 games dating back to Nov. 12, earning a 27-7-3 record over that stretch while allowing more than three goals a game just four times. Their 2.26 goals-against average is second in the league, trailing only Boston (2.21).

And Pittsburgh has done all of that while playing 23 of those games without Jordan Staal, 12 without Crosby and nine without Malkin.

“We know we are the ones that have to kind of lead the team from back there,” Zbynek Michalek said. “We’re just trying to play our game and I think our confidence is a little bit higher now than it was before. It shows on the ice and I hope we can keep it going.”

Pittsburgh’s defensive corps of Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek and Alex Goligoski, with Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy rotating into the lineup, are all signed to contracts through the end of next season at least.

“Our group of defensemen back there are guys that are signed up for a few years here,” Reirden said. “We wanted to have success from Day 1, but we also understood that the way we want to defend is a little bit different than they had done in the past and that is something that takes a little bit of adjustment to. I think we’ve certainly seen the fruits of their labor in buying into what we’re trying to do over the last 12-15 games.”

Goligoski said their success also stems from having built a certain level of comfort with each other as the season’s gone on, and just going out and playing their game.

“We’ve got good guys on the back end that are willing to chip in and do the dirty work and block shots and do the right things,” forward Maxime Talbot said.

“That group of 6-7 guys we have back there has been going out and doing things the right way and have been challenging each other to get better,” Reirden said.

And don’t expect the defense’s mindset to change even when the Penguins start getting injured players back in the lineup up top.

“We should feel pressure to perform every night no matter who’s in there,” Martin said. “We have to be responsible for our end. We’re doing a good job and it starts on the back end, so if we can do our job every night it will help give us a chance to win.”

Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by their teammates.

“Our defense and our goaltending has given us a chance to win every night,” forward Mike Rupp said. “They’ve been phenomenal, so when you have that, you’ve got a great shot at winning every night and we’ve been doing that.”
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