Believe or not, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense is not what fans should be worried about. While general consensus centers on the shortcomings of Penguins defensemen, consensus and reality diverge.
Defense, just like the Penguins offense, is a five-skater effort. No, it’s not the Penguins’ defense which is worrisome.
What should alarm fans anxiously awaiting another parade are the forwards. Specifically, forwards who treated the defensive blue line like a viral contagion and backchecking like a job for others.
This means Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Two players who have descended from the best hockey of their careers to cringeworthy defensive lapses, just in the last few weeks.
Straight-legged backchecks have left defensemen and goaltenders exposed to uncovered scoring threats. The PHN Extra Chalkboard feature has diagrammed several of these instances.
Penguins forwards, including Jake Guentzel and the above, have not fastidiously covered pinching defensemen. Too often, forwards have stayed low despite a responsibility to rotate high in the zone. The Penguins were on point against New Jersey on Thursday night. We diagrammed one great shift that night, in which Penguins defenseman pinched four times on one shift.
The Penguins kept the puck in the offensive zone for nearly one minute as defensemen Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak sealed the wall. Forwards protected against odd-man rushes by cycling back into coverage. Forwards also clogged the middle of the ice to prevent clearing attempts. It was a well-orchestrated symphony.
The Fates Hinge
To win that 34-pound silver chalice and hot dog humidor, the Pittsburgh Penguins must maintain offensive pressure. They cannot afford to get hemmed into their own zone as they often did in the 2017 playoffs. They survived that beating once, but a second helping won’t likely end in success.
To “get on the right side of the puck,” the Penguins must skate forward. That means using the talents of Kris Letang and Schultz: Pinching and activating defensemen. But, forwards cannot get complacent behind the play nor can they fail to cycle back to cover for the advancing D-men.
It will be about attention to detail. One line failing, one winger who dead-legs the backcheck, or doesn’t read the defensemen going low, provides the opposition with a high-danger shot on the Penguins net.
This is the way the Penguins are constructed, and this is the system. While Penguins Twitter yelled and cursed Letang during a season of gaffes and perceived gaffes, often it was a forward who hung him out to dry. While Matt Hunwick didn’t cover the backside Sunday night and T.J. Oshie had a clear path to Matt Murray, it was Malkin who abandoned his coverage of Oshie at the blue line.
The Penguins’ defensemen need to be aggressive. The Penguins need to maintain offensive pressure. That is how they will beat opponents this year.
Keep Pedal Down
It will be a high-risk, high-reward proposition but some of the risks must be mitigated through defensive responsibility. The forward who is high in the zone must recognize when the defensemen are taking a chance.
The defensemen won’t always be able to keep the puck alive and will make mistakes. That’s the nature of aggressive play.
Letang, Schultz or Oleksiak aren’t wrong for pinching or carrying the puck into the low zone. That activation is a great Penguins advantage. For the defensemen to fall back or stay home would be to slow the game and deny their very construction.
The coordinated circus puts intense pressure on the opposition but it also puts pressure on the Penguins. To win the 2018 Stanley Cup the defensemen will have to skate forward and the high forward will have to show a commitment to his position.
The more time the Penguins spend in the offensive zone is less time the opponents are in the Penguins zone. And given the Penguins struggles in their defensive zone, a few chances in the offensive zone is well worth it.