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The Blueprint: simplification and leadership

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Penguins

The Penguins' 2-1 victory against a previously undefeated Anaheim team on Thursday was a blueprint for how the team will have to play over the next few weeks as they navigate the season with several key forwards out of the lineup due to injury. Simplification and leadership will be critical to the team's success in that span. 

The Penguins are dealing with a rash of injuries at the forward position. They currently have four players on the mend: Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad and Alex Galchenyuk with lower-body injuries and Bryan Rust with an upper-body injury. All are out "longer term" with their respective injuries. 

The Penguins' organizational depth will be tested over the next few weeks. With the team being decimated, the Penguins recalled Sam Lafferty, Andrew Agozzino and Adam Johnson from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. 

Despite all the injuries, the Penguins won't change their style of play or system. But that doesn't mean they won't change their approach. 

"I don't think we're going to change our identity or style of play. I think we're going to simplify our style of play," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "When we do that, we're at our best regardless of who's in our lineup."

It's a word that is expressed often from players and teams throughout the year: simplify. But what exactly does simplification look like? Every team is different. Every player is different. So, simplification is defined by whom is being asked. 

So how do the Penguins define "simplify our game"? 

Sullivan: "I think it's essential that we manage the puck appropriately, that we make sure we play within structure. … We've talked a lot about a simplified version of our game. It starts with hockey decisions."

Brian Dumoulin: "It's just being predictable in our locker room. We know that we're not going to make that extra move on the blue line. (We need to) get pucks deep and make teams have to work to beat us."

Jared McCann: "Play well defensively. Can't give any Grade-A chances or limit them."

Justin Schultz: "Taking care of the puck. Not trying to make that extra play. Just being smart. If we don't have the puck we have to defend. That's a simple game for us."

The Penguins are on the same page philosophically when it comes to how their game needs to look in this simplified form. As far as physical form and results, they only need to watch film of their victory last night. 

The Blueprint
The Penguins earned a tight, low-scoring 2-1 victory against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins played within their structure, didn't commit bad turnovers and limited odd-man rushes against. 

In essence, they executed their "simplified" game plan to perfection. 

"That's the type of game we have to play," Sullivan said. "We've got to find a comfort level in playing that type of game. This is going to serve this group very well because we have what it takes to win. 

"When you win a game like last night - it's a good team win and group effort - it provides a lot of evidence that if we play the game a certain way we can win on any given night."

The Penguins surrendered 32 shots to the Ducks, but there weren't many high-end scoring chances. Pittsburgh had numbers back, eliminating any odd-man rushes. Most of the shots were from the perimeter and easily steered aside by goaltender Matt Murray. 

It all stemmed from the Penguins not forcing passes in the neutral zone, thus leading to turnovers, thus leading to odd-man breaks. 

"We've really done a much better job … managing the puck in the critical areas of the rink so we don't feed a team's transition game," Sullivan said. "We force them to play goal line to goal line."

Particularly impressive in the victory was the Penguins patience. Pittsburgh is a high-skilled team that likes to make plays. And when they play teams like Anaheim - which will squeeze the neutral zone and cut off those plays - the Penguins tend to get frustrated and start making bad decisions. 

But Thursday night that wasn't the case. The Penguins grinded and eked out a win. With their offensive talent, the Penguins know they have the ability to score. And good offense starts with good defense. 

"It was the type of win we needed," defenseman Kris Letang said. "We found a way to take what they gave us and win a big game. That's the way to play. If we play well in our zone and are committed to all the little details it will transfer to our offensive game. We have so many guys that can score goals and make plays." 

With the Penguins many injuries, they will need to rely on, now more than ever, their best players. And it's quite convenient that the team employs the best player in the game right now. 

Captain Sidney Crosby gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead with a power-play goal three minutes into the Anaheim game. Later in the game he would assist on the game-winning goal with an incredible individual effort to set up Jake Guentzel for the deciding tally. Most importantly, Crosby defended the lead just as vigorously as he did crafting it. 

"He's such an inspiration when he plays the game as hard as he does, as he does on most nights," Sullivan said. "I thought he was a force at both ends of the rink. His commitment to defending is just as hard as it to creating offense for us." 

Crosby figured in on both Penguins' goals. Guentzel scored a goal. Letang setup Crosby's goal with a beautiful slap-pass-deflection play. Murray locked it down in the third period by stopping all 12 shots against. 

The Penguins' leaders led the way. The Penguins simplified and executed. And the result was a W. The Penguins will need to keep that formula for the foreseeable future until the cavalry returns. 

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