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Penguins Defense Is Hitting Its Stride

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins have always featured high-powered offenses. With names like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin appearing on the back of a Penguins jersey, it’s easy to understand why. 

While the Penguins defensive play doesn’t make many headlines (this article being an exception), Pittsburgh’s team defense has helped fuel the team to 11 straight wins – their second-best mark in team history – and a 14-game unbeaten streak (13-0-1). 

The Penguins had a few obstacles early in the season to overcome. The unit featured only three returning players – Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski – from last season, with four newcomers – Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Deryk Engelland, and Ben Lovejoy. 

The defensive corps had to work with new teammates, new systems and new team verbiage. Early-season injuries to Orpik and Michalek stymied the team’s chemistry. But with the unit fully healthy, the defense is starting to hit its stride. 

“It wasn’t an easy adjustment for myself and Paul, new guys coming in, plus the injuries at the beginning of the season,” Michalek said. “We didn’t get off to a great start, but lately we’re playing much better. Everyone is getting adjusted and everybody is playing well.”

The Penguins have surrendered 2.30 goals per game, the third-best figure in the National Hockey League. Pittsburgh hasn’t given up more than two goals in its last nine games.
(The forwards are) coming back hard and making it easy on us. They’re playing their positions and let the defense do what we’re supposed to do. No one defends with two guys and a goalie. It’s everyone out there. We’re doing a great job. - Alex Goligoski

The Penguins defensive success can be summed up in three aspects: strong backchecking from the forwards; quick puck retrievals and clears; and offensive zone time. 

Playing strong defense takes a commitment from all five skaters on the ice. The three forwards must do their part in the defensive zone as well as in the neutral zone.

“It’s five guys on the ice,” Michalek said. “Defensively, our forwards are doing a great job of backchecking and backtracking. They strip their forwards of the puck before they get to the red line. They allow us to keep a good gap. We don’t give the opposing team any time and space. We force them to dump the puck. That makes it easier for us. The less time we spend in our zone the better."

“Tracking back as a unit, playing for Pittsburgh, they harp on all three guys coming back,” center Mark Letestu said. “That puts some pressure on the opposing forwards to make the plays a little quicker. It helps our D keep their gap a little better. It forces us to play defense a little earlier, which has helped us a lot lately.”

With the forwards backchecking, the two D-men can hold their position and force the opposition to dump the puck. From there, it’s up to the defensemen to get the puck and get it out of the zone. 

“I think for the most part, we’ve done a good job of getting out of there quick,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “Most of that has to do with the D going back for pucks, retrieving it well and not allowing teams to get constant pressure. It is a five-man unit, but we’ve done a good job of not getting caught there too much.”

And the best defense is a great offense. After all, when the puck is in the offensive zone the Penguins can’t give up a goal. 

“If a team spends 30 seconds in their own zone, they’re not going to have a lot of energy to come back and play offense,” Crosby said. “That’s a big part of our game. When we’re at our best, that’s the way we’re playing.”

“We talk about playing in the O-zone and wearing down the opposition’s defensemen,” Letestu said. “It gives our defensemen a break. They can stand on the blue line for a little while. It saves them some energy for when they have to work hard in the D zone.”

If the Penguins keep executing those three elements well, maybe Pittsburgh’s defense will start to steal the headlines from the offense.

“Everyone is really comfortable and doing the right things,” Goligoski said. “It’s a lot easier to play defense when your forwards take care of the puck and everyone’s on the same page in the defensive zone. 

“(The forwards are) coming back hard and making it easy on us,” Goligoski sai. “They’re playing their positions and let the defense do what we’re supposed to do. No one defends with two guys and a goalie. It’s everyone out there. We’re doing a great job.”
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