Coaches preach the value of driving to the net from the time players put on their first pair of skates. And, as often as players hear these instructions, they still fail to always execute what seems to be such a mundane task.
Driving to the top of the crease and providing a net-front presence involves much more than simply ‘standing’ in the slot area. There is a distinct art to succeeding in this region, in addition to the fortitude required to take the beating that comes with locating yourself in the most high-traffic area on the rink.
The reward for executing a good net drive is helping your team put a puck in the back of the net, be it by slamming home a rebound, deflecting an oncoming shot or taking away the goaltender’s sightline so that a teammate can receive the glory that comes from scoring.
The Penguins’ execution in this area is a huge reason why they were able to score five even-strength goals and win both games during their opening weekend.
“Hopefully that is something we can have as an identity for our team,” head coach Dan Bylsma said in the locker room following practice earlier this week. “(Other teams have to know) we are going to have that presence there that is constant in the offensive zone.”
Perhaps no goal better exemplified that desire this past weekend than Ruslan Fedotenko’s game-tying goal late in the third period against the Islanders on Saturday night.
As the puck came to the point to defenseman Sergei Gonchar, winger Tyler Kennedy
drove right onto netminder Dwayne Roloson’s doorstep, where he was knocked into Roloson by New York defenseman Brendan Witt. Roloson was unable to control the initial shot by Gonchar, and left a rebound sitting right outside his crease.
Fedotenko followed right behind Kennedy and stopped right in front of the net, allowing him to bank the loose puck waiting for him off the skate of Bruno Gervais and over a sprawling Trent Hunter in the crease for the goal.
On that play, Fedotenko was rewarded because he didn’t settle for waiting off to the side for a puck to come to him, he went right where Bylsma wants his players going when they don’t have the puck.
“If you can develop the habit of getting to the front of the net, being a presence in front of the goalie, more of the shots from the point and slot will allow rebounds to be there,” Bylsma said.
Earlier in that third period, defenseman Mark Eaton tied the game, 2-2, right off a faceoff because of the screen provided by Chris Kunitz
As Sidney Crosby
easily won the puck back to Kris Letang
at the left point, Kunitz immediately broke from his position on the left-wing boards to the front of the cage. Letang quickly fed the puck over to Eaton, whose one-timer never got more than six inches off the ice, but found its way past the New York backstop in part because Kunitz was not only in the way of Roloson’s path to the puck, but he made an attempt to deflect the shot coming right at his stick.
“That is part of everybody’s game plan – to get traffic in front and try to get pucks through,” described Eaton. “We just need to continue to do that and get pucks there.”
Fellow defenseman Alex Goligoski added that, when he gets the time, he looks for chances to get deflections.
“If you have time and you have your head up, you can see guys cutting through the front of the net and shoot for their sticks, or shoot for an area where a guy is going to be.
“The defensemen have had a lot of opportunities to get pucks through. Our forwards have done a great job getting sticks on pucks and getting in front of the goalie. It makes our job easy when they are tipping pucks and the goalie can’t see them.”
Goligoski’s job was made easier on Friday against the Rangers when he shot a puck from the right point that Tyler Kennedy
deflected past the Rangers Henrik Lundqvist for the winning goal. Matt Cooke
was also in front of Lundqvist on the play providing further traffic.
Center Jordan Staal
, who started the play by picking off a Rangers’ clearing attempt, likes the net presence his line has provided in the early going.
“That is always a key to every game,” Staal said. “No goalie likes traffic. It’s a big thing in the aggressive style we play. We want to keep improving on it as well.”
Staal is not the only person who wants to see the Penguins’ front-net presence continue to improve, as Bylsma echoed the same sentiments.
“One of the areas we hope to get better at is having a presence in front of the net,” said Bylsma. “That is as much a habit as it is anything. Sometimes we wait behind the net or in the corners for cycles.”
While by no means a finished product in terms of generating a constant presence in front of the opposition’s net, the Penguins have shown through the first two games that they are willing to pay the sacrifices required to score dirty goals in the NHL.
Captain Sidney Crosby
believes getting in the habit of driving the net here in early October will help the team be more prepared to succeed when the games get bigger down the stretch.
“Those are the areas always being emphasized by our team,” Crosby said. “The tighter games get, the more goals like that become important. We are going to have to score a lot of those types of goals.
“As you see during the playoffs, that’s what you are going to see a lot of. It’s hard to get to those areas so if we can make a habit of scoring like that, it’s going to be to our benefit.”