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The blueprint has become the foundation

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Penguins

Things looked bleak three weeks ago for the Penguins. A rash of injuries had decimated the roster, knocking out key forwards Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann. Even top defender Brian Dumoulin would eventually join that list. 

The Penguins laid out a blueprint for how they wanted to play. It involved a simplified approach, a commitment to defense and making smarter decisions on the ice. It required that the players buy in to the approach, starting with the team's leadership. 

In the past 21 days, the Penguins not only executed that blueprint with proficiency, but have also laid a foundation for the rest of the season. 

"I've liked the way our team's been playing for three, four weeks now," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "We are playing the game the right way, the way we want to play it. When we all buy in the way the guys are buying in right now, we're a very good hockey team.

"I like where the mindset of the group is at right now. I give our players so much credit for how hard they're working. It's a collective effort. It's a team game in the true sense of the word." 

The Penguins have gone 7-3 in their last 10 games starting with a tightly fought 2-1 victory against Anaheim on Oct. 10. The win was the start of a five-game winning streak. And Pittsburgh's three losses in that stretch were one-goal games (prior to empty-netters). 

But even in defeat, Sullivan was pleased with his team's effort. 

"You can't always control whether the puck goes in the net or not," he said. "But you can control your attitude, you can control your effort, you can control your attention to detail. I thought it was all there collectively as a group." 

The Penguins replaced risky passes in the neutral zone with better decision making. The Penguins replaced forcing plays through traffic for dumping the puck and forechecking in the offensive zone. The Penguins replaced risky pinching with a responsible third-man high. 

As a result, the Penguins have transformed from a high-risk team a year ago into a structurally efficient machine. But the main difference from last season has been the execution on the ice and not a new way of thinking by the coaching staff. 

"It's not like we came in and implemented a brand-new game plan with a whole new system," Sullivan said. "We're playing the game from a system standpoint the same way we've played. What's happening is the hockey decisions taking place within the system and the collective effort, and commitment to compete night in and night out, shift in and shift out has been impressive from our standpoint."

The results bore fruit at both ends of the ice. The Penguins limited odd-man rushes and scoring chances against. Pittsburgh has surrendered 22 goals against in the past 10 games. If you take away the three empty-net goals against scored, the Penguins have allowed less than two goals per game.  

"We knew the areas we had to clean up from last year. I think so far we've done a great job of doing that, limiting the odd-man rushes and chances against," Dumoulin said. "Our scoring chances against have gone way down from last year. Those are areas we could improve upon and we have so far." 

Meanwhile, the Penguins' offense has thrived with 37 goals - a plus-15 goal differential in that 10-game span. That includes three games in which Pittsburgh posted seven goals in a single game. 

"Our approach for the whole month with all those guys out was really good," captain Sidney Crosby said. "We can build off that." 

"We would have loved to find this chemistry right from the start, but things happen," defenseman Kris Letang said. "We found a recipe that suits our game and the way we're built." 

The Penguins were hoping to tread water until their injured players returned. Instead, they rode a wave. The injuries, at once viewed as a precarious situation, turned out to be a secret blessing.  

And now those players are returning. Last Saturday Rust and Bjugstad returned, followed by Galchenyuk and Dumoulin Tuesday. 

As those players have returned, they've been able to transition seamlessly into the lineup and absorb the same approach that the team has implemented in the opening month of the season. The Penguins used the blueprint to lay the foundation of their game. 

And with the healthy players all coming back - Malkin is slated to return on Saturday and it would mark the first time all season the Penguins have iced a completely healthy lineup - the new challenge is to keep building on that foundation. 

"It's something we have to maintain," Crosby said. "It's great to be able to do it, but the challenge for every team is being consistent with it and bringing that same mentality every night regardless of the schedule, who you're playing, who's in the lineup. That'll be a challenge." 

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