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Total Team Effort Fuels Penguins 3-1 Series Lead Over Senators

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Anytime Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin play out of their minds hockey, the Penguins are a tough team to defeat in a seven-game series. When their teammates respond with a similar effort, it’s almost impossible for teams to beat Pittsburgh.

Matt Cooke is one of 11 different Penguins to find the back of the net for Pittsburgh against the Senators. Credit - Getty Images
As great as Crosby and Malkin are playing, and right now they are showing the hockey world why they are arguably two of the top three players in the world, the biggest reason why the Penguins are one victory away from eliminating the Ottawa Senators is the contributions they are receiving up and down the lineup.

“I think that we certainly have gotten strong support from Geno and Sid, but our team game has been good,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “A lot of what we are getting in the offensive categories is coming from good, solid team playing and doing things the right way with the way that we are executing. It is allowing everybody to be a factor in the game.”

“We are lucky to have Sid and Geno because obviously they are two of the best players in the league,” Maxime Talbot said. “They have a lot of pressure every game so for our team to have guys like Duper (Pascal Dupuis), (Jordan) Staal, (Matt) Cookie, (Chris) Kunitz and the rest of us scoring all throughout the season (is important).”

One glance at the 3-1 series lead the Penguins currently possess might allow one to conclude that Pittsburgh has had its way with the Senators, but that is simply not the case. Each of the three wins has featured their share of pressure-packed moments, and on each occasion role players stepped up to supplement the wondrous acts performed by the Penguins’ two-headed monster.

Facing the prospect of heading to overtime in Game 2, and risking the proposition that one fluke tally by Ottawa could result in the Penguins falling behind the Senators 0-2, Kris Letang simply stepped up late in regulation to rip a slap shot through traffic past Brian Elliott to give the Penguins a 2-1 win that evened the series.

In the critical Game 3 at Scotiabank Place on Sunday, the home crowd never had a chance to be a factor because Alexei Ponikarovsky silenced them 1:17 into the contest by opening the scoring with his first goal since March 18.

When Ottawa was threatening to make a contest out of Game 4 on a power play just minutes after cutting their deficit from 4-0 to 4-2, Craig Adams and Maxime Talbot combined on a backbreaking shorthanded tally which allowed the Penguins to regain the separation they needed to fend off the Senators.

“Our secondary scoring has been very solid,” Talbot said. “I feel like we feed off of that in the playoffs too. That is a huge advantage. For Sid and Geno, when they get a goal from guys like me or Cookie, it gives them relief that ‘OK, we don’t have all the pressure to score goals.’ That can just make it easier to play and focus on the game.”

Not only are the Penguins getting championship-type offensive contributions throughout the lineup, but different players are stepping up to perform roles that can sometimes be overlooked by the casual observer.

Big Mike Rupp was inserted following the Penguins’ 5-4 setback in Game 1 and the Penguins have an unblemished record since, with Rupp delivering nine hits as a forechecking presence. Steady veteran defenseman Jay McKee has filled in admirably the past two games in place of the injured Jordan Leopold, blocking six shots and posting a plus-3 rating.

“Jay McKee stepped in and played well defensively and added to the way that we needed to execute,” Bylsma said. “You see Max Talbot, and you see chances coming through good defensive players with a good structure and a good team play. It’s turning into pucks going quickly in the other direction toward north. It’s turning into offense and chances and putting Ottawa under pressure. That’s what our team is designed to do.”

What the Penguins are also designed to do is attack teams from all angles. During the regular season they led the National Hockey League with 13 different players recording double-digit goal totals. Having such a diversified offensive attack, which makes it tough for opposing coaches to key in on one guy or one line, has only continued here in the postseason.

Through Wednesday, the Penguins have had 11 different players combine to score their 17 goals, with only Crosby and Malkin (four each) netting more than one, a total which ranks first in the NHL. Additionally, 11 players have picked two or more points for Pittsburgh, again, a league-leading figure.

“It is huge for us to have secondary scoring,” Talbot said. “I think we have been playing our best when everybody is contributing. It’s going good right now.”

Bylsma attributes such numbers to all four forward lines and the three defensive pairings all playing a perfect team game within the attacking, up-tempo system the Penguins use.

“If we play the right way and execute – our guys are doing a great job of that,” Bylsma said. “You see different people getting chances at the other end of the rink because of it. We have to keep getting better and better by focusing on doing the right things and turning that into offensive zone time.”

The way the Penguins have played the past three games it is tough to imagine what they could do if they get “better and better” like Bylsma hopes. While predicting the outcome of series is a risky proposition with the way momentum can change in an instant, the Penguins have to feel good about their chances of continuing to improve thanks to the team effort they are receiving throughout the lineup.

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