Speed, skill and superstar scoring are the immediate things that come to mind while thinking about the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the team has a solid core of physical, gritty players to compliment its high-end talent. The hitting prowess of this group has opened the door for Pittsburgh to be able to play its brand of hockey.
As of Tuesday the Penguins had four players ranking in the top 20 in the NHL in hits: Brooks Orpik
(91 hits, 7th rank); Craig Adams
(86, 13th); Matt Cooke
(85, 15th); Mike Rupp (82, 19th).
The Penguins have 897 hits as a team, the most of any NHL squad and 52 more than second-place Carolina (845).
“If you get out there and finish your checks, more than anything else you’re just trying to rush your opponent into making a play before they’re ready to make it,” Adams said. “If you can make them rush their play a little bit your chances of creating turnovers are much better.”
By forcing turnovers, the Penguins are able to play a puck-possession game, grinding other teams down and putting the biscuit on the sticks of top-tier scoring phenoms like Sidney Crosby
and Evgeni Malkin
“We want to have possession of the puck and be a team that wears teams down,” Rupp said. “The best way to do that is to get on the other teams defensemen and make sure we’re playing physical and hitting them. I think over the course of 60 minutes that it will play in our favor.
“They’ll be rushing passes. They don’t want to go back to get it. That’s when it’s our time to pounce on those turnovers by them and hopefully get some chances out of it.”
The ability to have an aggressive forecheck is one of the keys to the system that head coach Dan Bylsma has brought to Pittsburgh. When forwards throw their weight around while forechecking they rattle the opponent’s defense, allowing the Penguins to spend more time on the attack in the offensive zone.
“A lot of the times you’re disrupting what (the other team’s defense) is trying to do,” Adams said. “A defenseman goes back and he’s been getting hit all night. He sees you coming and maybe he doesn’t make such a good pass as he would if he had more time and space. That’s kind of the by-the-book reason why you do it.”
It sends a message that we’re committed to playing the way that we need to play. It also allows us, when we’re in on the forecheck, to buy some time and make people think that we’re coming hard and get them to get rid of the puck sooner than they’d like - Matt Cooke
“It sends a message that we’re committed to playing the way that we need to play,” Cooke said. “It also allows us, when we’re in on the forecheck, to buy some time and make people think that we’re coming hard and get them to get rid of the puck sooner than they’d like.”
Bylsma’s message of “grind the other team down” has gotten through loud and clear to his players. This is evident in the team’s strong physical play.
“You want to wear them down,” Rupp said. “We noticed, even over the course of the last six or seven games, the (opponent’s) D, by the time the third period rolls around, they’re maybe letting the forwards go in first and get the puck.
“It starts to wear. If you’re a defenseman and you’re getting hit all night, it’s going to start wearing on you.”
But an aggressive forecheck cannot begin without strong play in your own defensive zone. This is where the hitting by Penguins defenders, such as Orpik, comes into play.
“It’s a combination of the D having a good gap and then the back pressure from the back checkers,” Orpik said. “It’s something we talk about. At the end of the game, the less time you spend in the D-zone the better chance you have to win the game.”
A hard-hitting backcheck leads to solid breakouts, offensive chances and the all-too-valuable chance to grind the opponent down on the forecheck, the less time the Penguins have to spend defending their end the better.
“We just try to spend 10 seconds or less in the D-zone if we can,” Orpik said. “We have a lot of guys in here that want to be physical. I think it’s something that as you get older you learn how to pick your spots, where you can be physical without taking yourself out of the play.”
This hardnosed grit allows the Penguins to shine as one of the finest, most complete teams in the NHL, a lethal mix of scoring talent and bone-crunching checkers.
“That’s a strength of our team,” Cooke said. “It’s the mix that we have and the ability to have skill, but also to be able to go in and play a grinder-style game.”