Through Tuesday night’s action the Penguins' offense ranked eighth in the National Hockey League, scoring 3.44 goals per game, while at the same time ranking third in the league in goals against at 2.11.
“We want to dictate the pace,” head coach Dan Bylsma said following practice Tuesday. “We want to force teams to play defense. We want to force teams to deal with speed at them for long periods of extended time in the offensive zone. That’s the game plan regardless of who we play, whether they’re healthy or not, whether they’re old or young. When we can do that it puts teams in a tough spot.”
A key to such an attack is the defensemen ‘holding the zone,’ but what does this really mean, and how does it pertain to the way the Penguins execute their system?
“As a mindset, the way our defensemen play, is what we ask of our forwards,” said assistant coach Mike Yeo, who runs defensemen. “We want to be an aggressive team. That doesn’t mean we want to run around and take ourselves out of position. We want to look for timely opportunities to keep the attack going. Certainly part of that is in the offensive zone.
“It has to be a team thing. It can’t be just select guys. I think that is why it has been so successful for us. It is a part of our system and that is the way that, as a group, we want to play.”
One way for the defensemen to hold the blue line is to keep alive pucks cleared around the boards. Against the Blues on Tuesday night, Jay McKee did this perfectly, and it led to the Penguins scoring the opening goal.Matt Cooke
sent the puck behind the net from near corner to the far one, but nobody was home. McKee sprinted down from his left-point position to beat the Blues to the puck. He then dropped a pass to a supporting Tyler Kennedy
, who promptly beat Chris Mason for the score.
If McKee doesn’t vacate his spot at the blue line and go after the loose puck, St. Louis more than likely takes possession and clears their zone, possibly changing the whole outcome of the game.
Yeo says his defensemen have the freedom to make plays such as McKee’s anytime they see fit, as long as they have support behind them.
“When we are responsible and recognize we have a good third man high in the offensive zone, then we have a pinch-down opportunity to keep the puck alive. I think our D-men have been making great reads on when to jump down and keep those pucks in and when to pull out and play a little more cautious.”
Such freedom is welcomed by the Penguins’ collection of offensively-minded D-men who are more than capable of making plays upon keeping pucks in the zone.
“I want to spend time in the offensive zone so every time I have the chance I will step up in front of their forward to keep the puck in and get the offense going,” Kris Letang
said. “As long as I have a forward back or somebody who is going to cover me. Obviously I am going down (into the zone) so there are two opposing guys who are going to go by me so it is really important to have my partner and a forward back.”
“All the guys get plenty of practice at it,” Yeo said. “It’s something we work on in practice – keeping those pucks alive, jumping down and finding those opportunities. They all seem very comfortable in doing it.”
Keeping the puck alive on the walls inside the zone is easy for defensemen fortunate to play on their forehand side. But what about those such as Sergei Gonchar, a lefty who plays on the right side of the ice?
“Certainly there are differences in how you are going to come down and keep the puck alive,” Yeo said. “There are different angles in how you are going to play a guy pinching down on a player receiving the puck. For a guy like Sergei, he spends so much time over on the right side. He is more comfortable over there and has a better understanding of how to (keep pucks in from his off-side).”
“I would say most of the time today guys with a right-hand shot play on the right point, so for them it is easier,” Gonchar said. “Me, personally, I am a lefty playing on the right side. I grew up playing this position. It is just one of those things you have to learn. Maybe it’s not natural to be there, at the same time there are no other options, you just have to do the job.”
Gonchar also spoke about how both your stick and body angles change significantly on your off-side. While players on their forehand can simply place their stick along the boards as the puck comes to them, players on their backhand will have limited control of the puck if their angle is even slightly off. So how has Gonchar become so effective?
“You just work on it. Some of the guys need to take the extra time to work on it. It is one of those things where you can really improve by working on it.”
Holding the opposition blue line has also helped the Penguins maintain a good gap control – the amount of space between the opposition’s forwards and your defense. A good distance is a stick length or less. Allow much more than that and you give your attackers the space necessary to get creative with the puck.
When a team such as the Penguins are on their game, as they especially were the first 30 minutes against the Blues, maintaining a tight gap will force turnovers between center red and the opposing blue line, allowing for quick regroups, which the Penguins took advantage of often.
“It helps defending against the rush, making sure you get a good gap,” Yeo said. “If you are too quick to pull out then a lot of times you are going to get that separation from their puck carrier to our defense. It’s helping with our gap and how we defend rushes through the neutral zone.”
As good as the Penguins have been in the early going at keeping pucks in the zone and allowing the forwards to continue attacking in the offensive end, their head coach believes they can still reach another level.
“I think one of the question marks coming into the year – we had a lot of returning forwards – was what are our D-pairs going to be, how are they going to play and what is it going to look like? … I think they are coming into their own, but I think we can do a better job of being an attacking, get-up-the-ice type of defense and be more of a factor in that way as well.”