Kris Letang did not hold back when discussing the Pittsburgh Penguins’ recent play after Friday’s practice. The team has given up 17 goals in the past three games, all since acquiring third-line center deluxe Derick Brassard and losing gritty defenseman Ian Cole and tough guy Ryan Reaves.
Most importantly, the Penguins have also lost all three of those games.
The Penguins allowed 30 shots to the Florida Panthers last Saturday, but 38 shots to both the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday and the Boston Bruins on Thursday. The Penguins haven’t been troubled by the number of shots they’ve allowed as much as the quality of those.
Too Easy Lately
The forwards have not helped the Penguins defensive cause, but the attention remains on the Penguins defensemen.
“(We have to be) Harder to play against and better defensively,” Letang said. “We’re not a big, physical team but we still have to defend. Last week, that’s what we did and that’s why we had so much success.”
The New Jersey Devils openly discussed the Penguins’ “easy” play. The Boston Bruins made them pay for it.
The Penguins did give up a sizable chunk of the intangible known as grit in the Brassard trade. Letang has only 86 hits in 62 games this season. In 40 games last season, he had 70.
Letang, 30, has and is adjusting his game to the realities of the human body. His body, specifically, has been through most people would care to imagine.
Jamie Oleksiak is now the heavy hitter on the blue line. The 6-foot-7 inch defenseman has 96 hits in 30 games with the Penguins. When he hits, it usually hurts but who else on the blue line uses the body?
Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, and Matt Hunwick are not physical players. Though it should be noted Maatta has dished 103 hits this season.
Play Fast, Finish Hits
The Penguins did win 10 of 11 before the last three games.
“We weren’t really physical, but we were finishing our hit and removing people from the puck,” said Letang. “We have to go back to that. Go back to basics.”
Carl Hagelin admitted the forwards must to their part, too.
“I just think as a team, especially the last two games, we haven’t been good enough when it comes to puck battles,” he said. “It’s not about running guys or hitting everyone that moves out there. It’s about winning your battle. Whatever you do to win your battle, you’ve got to do that 200 percent.”
However, fear and loathing have gripped a fanbase. Hunwick is the scapegoat du jour. It’s certainly a label Letang has worn in the past, as has Maatta. Schultz wore it well in Edmonton.
Yet those former scapegoats combined for a pair of Stanley Cups. Perhaps wailing and gnashing of the teeth over three games is premature. Even without Cole, who in reality was one of the team’s bottom-pairing defenseman.
“Right now, guys are obviously able to score goals,” Letang said. “This is going to come if we play well defensively.”
Third Way to Win
Last season, the Penguins defied new conventional wisdom by being blown out on the Corsi stat sheet en route to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
They did so without their No. 1 defenseman, Letang, who was healing from neck surgery. In Letang’s place was journeyman defender Ron Hainsey, who paired with Dumoulin. They weren’t physical, nor were they good with the puck. But, they managed to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard.
In 2016, the Penguins took the puck away from everyone and wouldn’t give it back. They didn’t light up the scoresheet, but when the opponents don’t have the puck, they can’t score.
On paper, the new Penguins defense corps is better than the 2017 version. The new unit has more offensive skills. They are all-around better skaters.
Is it possible to play sound, positional defense and light up the scoreboard like a Christmas tree? The Penguins are now built to do just that. And, they figure to have Matt Murray back soon, too.
They may not rattle the glass, but did they ever? Swap Cole for Oleksiak and Chad Ruhwedel for Hunwick and the defensive unit looks very similar to last season.
Whether the Penguins admit it to themselves or not, they were too excited by the possibility to score at will. Brassard at the third-line center changed the dynamics, even if momentarily. The Penguins will recalibrate. They are far too good not to do so.
Take a deep breath from the hysteria gripping social media. After working the Penguins room Friday, the mood was acceptance and confidence.
“There’s no one that’s down or depressed,” Hagelin said. “We’re in a good spot coming in here. (Saturday) should be a turning point for us.”
They’ve got this.