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Penguins' Decision-Making Leads to Improved Defense

by Mark Madden / 105.9 the X

When you glance at the NHL's team statistics, the Penguins are traditionally at the top end offensively.

But not right now. The Penguins are averaging 3.4 goals per game. That's eighth in the league: Not bad, but hardly lofty.

But peruse the defensive side. The Penguins' goals-against average is 2.14, third-best in the league. They've allowed 416 shots, 10th-least in the league. Odd-man breaks against have trickled to very few.

Backed into a corner by a plethora of injuries up front, the Penguins turned to heightened defensive acumen. It's gotten them off to an 8-5-1 start, and figures to also help moving forward.

"We're playing better as a unit of five out there," said defenseman Kris Letang. "We're supporting each other defensively, and we're coming back hard into the zone. We don't give up as many odd-man rushes as we used to. That's the key.

"It's execution, being focused and doing the right things. It's the details."

The Penguins were strong defensively in Saturday's game vs. visiting Edmonton despite losing 2-1 in overtime.

The Penguins limited the high-flying Oilers to 28 shots and held the explosive duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to six shots total and one goal (though Draisaitl did net the game-winner).

Coach Mike Sullivan thinks that his team's defensive improvement is about execution, not system.

"We're making better decisions with the puck and we're making better decisions without the puck," Sullivan said. "We're keeping some depth. We've got people above the puck, and above people in the offensive zone.

"That's the discipline associated with our game that we've developed over the last 3-4 weeks. We haven't changed from a systems or tactical standpoint. We're just making better decisions and we're more committed."

Goaltending is naturally a big part of the defensive improvement. Matt Murray has a 2.17 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. Tristan Jarry's numbers stand at 2.02 and .939.

"We're committed to it," said Murray when asked about the Penguins' defensive improvement. "We're playing the right way. Having guys above the puck. We're really competing on the defensive side."

Defensemen Marcus Pettersson and Justin Schultz echoed the sentiments of Letang, Sullivan and Murray.

"We're just playing hard," Pettersson said. "Everybody's contributing. It's playing as a five-man unit. A big part is that Murray's playing great right now."

As for limiting opposition odd-man breaks, Pettersson said, "We're doing a better job being together. The defensemen are making better reads, and we have guys coming back."

Added Schultz, "We're doing the right things. When there's not a chance to create offense, we've making sure we have numbers back. We're not giving up those grade-A chances."

To add some perspective to the Penguins' start defensively, last season the Penguins ranked 14th in goals against. They were 20th in 2017-18. In 2016-17 they stood 17th, and that was a Stanley Cup season.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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