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Penguins Locker Room: On Shoring Up ‘D’, New Roles for Oleksiak & Sheahan

A collection of insights and observations from players and coaches following Monday’s practice.

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Jeanine Leach / Icon Sportswire

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — A collection of insights and observations from the Penguins’ dressing room following Monday’s practice at the Lemieux Sports Complex …

• The Penguins defeated the Flyers in overtime Sunday to sweep the season series and take five of six points on a three-game homestand, but the rivalry victory marked the first time in 10 games the Penguins didn’t own the majority of the shot attempts at even strength.

But although Philadelphia outshot Pittsburgh 45-42, the Penguins had a 25-18 advantage in scoring chances according to Natural Stat Trick. The hallmark of good defending is more based on the latter stat than the former, Mike Sullivan said Monday.

“There are areas where we can improve and get better to limit situations where we give up shots,” Sullivan said. “But the best defending teams are the ones that defend the scoring areas.”

Matt Murray faced 45 shots in all situations, but he didn’t feel like he was under siege. Not at all, in fact.

“I don’t think we gave up too big of an amount of good scoring chances,” Murray said. “I think shots on goal can be very skewed (compared) to how the game is being played. I think it’s a little bit small-minded to look at just on shots on goal and say that’s how a team is playing. I think there are better indicators than how the game goes.”

But it’s not as if the Penguins seem to be taking their recent porousness in stride. Whether the primary problem be team defending or goaltending or some combination of the two, they’ve allowed at least three goals in six straight games and seven of their past eight.

Their issues with goal prevention have prevented them from keeping pace with the first-place Capitals over the past two weeks. The Penguins have gone a passable 4-2-2 during that span. Not bad, but not enough to keep the gas pedal pressed to the floor.

“Just trying to make sure we’re not giving up the Grade ‘A’ (chances) as much,” Jamie Oleksiak said of Monday’s focus in the video room. “It’s been going pretty well for us offensively, so we just have to focus on playing a good system game.”

• For the first time in months, Kris Letang had a different defense partner Sunday. Oleksiak stepped into the spot formerly held by Brian Dumoulin, with Dumoulin joining Justin Schultz on the de facto second pairing.

Judging by Monday’s practice, Letang and Oleksiak will get at least one more game together when the Penguins start a two-city trip in Detroit on Tuesday. And that sounds like it’s OK with both men.

“He’s a pretty easy guy to play with,” Oleksiak told Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “So smart with the puck and such a good skater. He’s pretty vocal out there, too. For me, it’s just finding a place where I can be an option for him. We’ve only had one game so far and I’m looking forward to the chance to play with him again, but I think we did pretty good overall last game.”

The granular results looked good against the Flyers. Letang and Oleksiak had a combined 60 percent shot-share at even strength. The Penguins had 67 percent of the scoring chances when they were on the ice.

“I like to play with Jamie,” Letang said. “He’s a big boy. He can skate. He brings a physical aspect to our duo. … Both (Oleksiak and Dumoulin) are really good players.”

• Prior to the acquisition of Derick BrassardRiley Sheahan appeared to be settling into the third-center role quite nicely. Not only was he playing upwards of 16 minutes per night in the month preceding the trade deadline, he also had four goals and six assists in the 14-game stretch prior to the Feb. 26 roster freeze.

Since then, Sheahan has maintained his penalty-killing duties, but he’s topped 16 minutes just once, averaging about 12:30 per game in the month of March. Sullivan said he had a chat with Sheahan after Monday’s practice to make sure they’re on the same page.

“Riley’s role on this team is criticially important to this team’s ability to win,” Sullivan said. “When we traded for Derick, that’s probably the guy that got affected the most.”

With rookie winger Zach-Aston Reese getting some time on Sheahan’s wing during practice, the fourth line could be in a better position to contribute to the score sheet in the near future. Sheahan has just two goals and two assists in 13 games since Brassard came over from the Senators.

“(The decreased playing time) doesn’t diminish by any stretch the importance of Riley to this team and its ability to have success,” Sullivan said. “We can use him, and I have, in so many situations. When Riley’s at his best, we know he’s going to help us moving forward.”

• The Penguins have collected an NHL-best 10 overtime wins this season, accounting for nearly a quarter of their victories overall. Sullivan said Monday that he doesn’t think the Penguins have anything “figured out” about three-on-three overtime, but he’s pleased with their “body of work” in sudden death.

Several players have told me this season that they are feeling more comfortable for the possession-centric nature of three-on-three, but Bryan Rust, whose deflection goal Sunday afternoon downed the Flyers, went with the simplest explanation for the Penguins’ 10-4 record in OT games.

“With the personnel we have in here and the type of skill we have, that kind of gives us a leg up when there’s more open ice,” Rust said. “I don’t know if there’s much more to it than that.”

 

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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