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Strong Practices Allow Penguins to Get Back to Basics

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Jordan Staal's rebound goes off the body of the Rangers Brian Boyle and lands in the back of the net in the Penguins' 5-4 overtime victory over the Rangers on Thursday night. Credit - Getty Images
While Sidney Crosby, Brooks Orpik and the rest of the Penguins’ Olympic quintet competed for a gold medal in Vancouver, the remainder of the team reconvened at Southpointe to begin preparing for the final 20 games. For six days (five on ice) head coach Dan Bylsma and his assistants designed drills predicated on honing the nuances of the Penguins’ puck-possession system.


If the early returns are any indication, the grunt work put forth last week has already began paying immediate dividends for the Penguins, who have won both of their contests since returning to action. They bested a Buffalo Sabres squad chasing them for home-ice advantage, 3-2, on Tuesday, then had one of their finest regular-season performances under Bylsma in defeating the New York Rangers, 5-4 in overtime, on Thursday.

“I think we found some valuable practice time to focus on parts of our game,” Bylsma said. “When you can focus on it and get it into practice, you have a better chance of adding those details to your game. We didn’t break out anything new. The guys knew what it looked like and were willing to bring their team game and build that game.

“We’ve had that the last two games. The break helped. The practices helped. The focus here with 18 more games to go is that our guys have proved over two games that they’re on that page, and we have to keep it going.”

“It’s only been two games so it is still early,” Jordan Staal cautioned. “I think the week of practice was great. We were all working hard. I think we got refreshed with the X’s and O’s of our game. I think that is going to help.”

Some of the areas Bylsma focused on during the break – puck possession in the offensive zone, crashing the net and getting additional scoring from secondary sources – has been prevalent in the Penguins’ two victories.

Before the National Hockey League took a two-week recess beginning Feb. 14, the Penguins as a team spoke how they were not doing a good enough job hemming the opposition inside their own zone. That has not been a problem this week, especially against the Rangers.

At times on Thursday night it seemed like the Penguins had two players on the ice for every one Rangers jersey. During the third period and overtime, Pittsburgh outshot the Rangers 23-1. As a mater of fact, New York didn’t record a shot in the third period until Chris Drury threw a harmless shot at Brent Johnson with 4:26 remaining in regulation. When it was all said and done, the Penguins fired a team road record 55 shots Henrik Lundqvist’s way.

“I think our team game is getting contagious right now, and a lot of that is the puck being there,” Bylsma said. “We took shots at the net where we would not have taken shots earlier. We also had guys going (to the net). I think it is contagious when you play. Those are parts in the game that we want to be contagious at.

“We were also very good at getting there and staying there and holding onto the puck in the offensive zone better than we have been. That’s an energized and contagious way to play the game.”

Forward Mike Rupp, who got the comeback started for the Penguins by scoring at 14:23 of the second period to get the Penguins within 4-3 on Thursday, says the team is doing a better job making life miserable on the other team’s D-men.

“I think we have been a little more tenacious on the puck,” Rupp said. “We have been moving our legs and getting to the puck quick. We have been getting to their defensemen quickly before they can make a play and rushing them into making a bad play. Then we are pouncing on the turnovers. It is creating a lot of zone time for us.”

“I think our team game is getting contagious right now, and a lot of that is the puck being there. We took shots at the net where we would not have taken shots earlier. We also had guys going (to the net). I think it is contagious when you play. Those are parts in the game that we want to be contagious at. - Dan Bylsma
The Penguins will capitalize on that zone time if they continue driving the net like they have. With how good goaltenders are these days, it’s tough to score without bodies flying to the cage. Three of the Penguins goals Thursday night can be directly linked to having traffic going to the cage even though none of the three players charging the net got credit for scoring a goal.

With Staal lugging the puck down the right wing in the first period, Matt Cooke made a beeline for the cage. Staal threw a shot off Lundqvist, and the rebound went off the body of the Rangers Brian Boyle, who was defending Cooke, and bounced into the net.

Later, with the Penguins trailing by one, Alex Goligoski tossed a bad-angle shot from the far corner off the skate of New York’s Marc Staal, who was attempting to clear Sidney Crosby from the top of the blue paint.

Finally, Jordan Staal planted himself directly in Lundqvist’s sightline as Evgeni Malkin unleashed a howitzer from the right point at 3:42 of overtime.

“You saw that last night with our team,” Bylsma said. “That’s the contagious part of our game. It’s going to the net. It’s playing in the offensive zone. It’s getting pucks there. It’s looking up at the board and seeing 45 shots and talking about getting 50, and when you get to 55, talking about getting to 55. That’s Penguins hockey.”

Penguins hockey also involves receiving contributions throughout the lineup. This was another area which was lacking before the break, as either Crosby or Malkin factored into 33 of the Penguins 37 goals through Feb. 14. In the two games since, the Penguins have scored four of their eight goals without either of the two figuring into the play. The Penguins have also seen three key cogs, Rupp (18 games), Ruslan Fedotenko (17) and Goligoski (37) end long goal-less droughts.

“It had been a while,” Rupp said. “Our team has been playing well the past two games. I think individually each one of us has stepped our game up. Hopefully we will be able to keep doing it.

“We were relying on 87 and 71 and Staal a lot. (The role guys) have to get timely goals. It doesn’t even have to be an abundance of goals. Timely goals are the key. We are getting that right now. Hopefully that will continue down the stretch because come playoff time that is important.”

Forward Pascal Dupuis, another role guy who scored his 14th goal of the season on Tuesday, says four effective lines contributing offensively is as important as anything at this time of year.

“It is at the point in the season where everybody needs to be chipping in if we want to be winning hockey games,” Dupuis said. “I think we have 18 games left in the season so everybody needs to be chipping in so that this team is ready for the playoffs.”

Staal says continuing to follow this formula will set the team up for good things down the stretch.

“I think we are just playing the right way,” he said. “(Thursday) was obviously the biggest example of that. I liked the way we took control of the game and left no doubt. If we keep doing that we will be really good.”

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