These aren’t your grandparents’ Penguins. Or your parents’ Penguins. Or for that matter, yours.
The Pens, throughout their entire history, have been known for boasting a high-flying, fast-tempo offense built around some of the most unique and dynamic talents in the game.
Needless to say, defense always took a backseat.
However, under head coach Mike Johnston and his coaching staff, the Pens have become one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. Their 2.36 goals-against average ranks fourth in the league and is only .04 behind the NY Rangers for third place.
The last time the Pens ranked that high defensively was when they finished fourth in the NHL during the 1997-98 season with a 2.29 mark. Since that season, Pittsburgh has cracked the top 10 only once (seventh; 2010-11; 2.39).
Ironically, Pittsburgh’s offense has fallen to 10th place in the NHL with 2.82 goals per game, although that is skewed by the many injuries the team has dealt with all season.
The Pens are just four points behind the NY Islanders for the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings with a 38-18-10 record. They’ve enjoyed a lot of success this season, thanks in the most part to their defensive play.
Pittsburgh has found itself in a lot of close, tight-checking, one-goal games recently, and have thrived in those scenarios.
So what has caused this seismic shift?
SYSTEM Let’s start with the Pens’ system. Johnston implemented a new system upon his arrival that is founded on the principles of puck possession and puck support.
The Pens use small gap distance in the defensive zone and will shift to wherever the puck is located. Two players will attack the puck with the others providing outlets for support. Once a Penguin wins the puck battle and gains possession, he will have several options to chip it out of the zone, find a teammate for an outlet or simply throw it to safe, vacant space.
Pens forwards are also collapsing to the goal in support of their defensemen, particularly after shots. Once a shot is taken, Pittsburgh’s initial point of emphasis is locating an opposing player and tying them up. After that, they will collect the puck and use one of their above-mentioned options to keep it out of danger. This has resulted in less second and third opportunities for other teams.
When executed properly, the only open passing lane or outlet for opposing teams is a cross-ice pass to a defenseman. Everything is funneled to the outside for low-quality scoring chances.
PK It’s impossible to have a top-ranked defense without effective penalty killing units. The Pens PK unit ranks fifth in the NHL with an 85.6-percent success rate – which is only 0.2 percent behind Carolina and Vancouver, who are tied for third place.
The anchors on the PK all year have been defensemen Rob Scuderi and Kris Letang (and obviously Marc-Andre Fleury, but more on him later).
Systematically the Pens aren't rewriting the book on killing penalties. They’re just executing at an extremely high level. They use a passive box with very active sticks. The Pens try to keep everything on the outside and protect against any puck movement through the heart of the box. After a shot, they use the same mentality as they would 5-on-5, collapsing to the net, identifying and eliminating opponents and then getting the puck out of the zone.
The Pens’ PK was exposed in the first few games of the regular season as opponents were making easy passes through their box. The team made adjustments and made protecting that area a key point of emphasis. Since those first three games of the season, the Pens have been arguably the best PK team in the league.
With the emphasis on protecting the heart, it does leave the Pens vulnerable to those outside bombs (think Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos). However, most power-play goals are scored in the heart of the slot. The Pens have played the smart percentage – and it’s paid off.
PLAYERS The Pens coaching staff can put together the most brilliant defensive scheme in the history of hockey, but it’s meaningless unless the players can translate that philosophy on the ice.
Most of the credit, and deservedly so, belongs to the players in the Pens’ dressing room. They’ve committed to the system and have done a marvelous job of executing.
One area the Pens deserve much credit in is their patience, especially during times when their offense is struggling. Pittsburgh has had a tendency in the past, particularly in the postseason, to break their defensive responsibilities to try and create offense. As Brandon Sutter put it, “Trying to be too fancy is always our Achilles heel.” But this season the Pens have stuck to their system and haven’t tried to force offense. Because of that mentality they’ve been able to win those close, tight games, which will pay dividends in the playoffs.
GOALIE Of course, all defense starts and ends with the play of the goaltender. The Pens’ defense wouldn’t be posting such impressive numbers without the play of Fleury (and Thomas Greiss when he gets the start).
Fleury, arguably the Pens’ team MVP, is in the midst of the best season of his career and that’s no coincidence. He’s been the key cog to the entire system. Fleury leads the NHL with nine shutouts on the season and has posted a 30-14-7 record with a 2.14 goals-against average (fourth in the NHL) and .925 save percentage (fifth-tied).
Fleury has been especially good this year against odd-man rushes. The Pens have been nearly flawless in their defensive zone. But one area they’ve struggled is against other teams’ transition games when they turn the puck over. This has led to many odd-man breaks. Fleury has played these situations about as well as any goalie in the NHL. He’s posted up against the shooter; yet has shown great anticipation and extreme athleticism to make a save on a pass.
All the above factors have contributed to Pittsburgh’s defensive success this season, but Fleury has been the foundation.