The Pittsburgh Penguins are attempting to play defense. To get ready for the playoffs, to show they can play what most consider playoff hockey, the Penguins are magnifying their defensive responsibilities.
Unfortunately, it isn’t going to work.
Whether the Penguins want to admit it or not, their identity is deep and explosive offensive talent.
It is time for the Penguins to embrace their strengths and recognize no amount of coaching or begging will turn them into a shutdown team. No prodding or motivation will enable them to become a responsible, defensively-aware team. Not in the final six games of the season. It just won’t happen.
To rely on the defensive prowess of Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary, is a recipe for a May tee time at Nevillewood. To ask Kris Letang to become his 2015-16 self isn’t going to work. Simply, the Penguins are not a good defensive team.
For the Penguins to win a third consecutive Stanley Cup, the “just play” mantra must become “just score.” And keep scoring. A lot.
Last weekend should have been a learning experience. Friday, the New Jersey Devils nearly skated the Penguins out of their home arena. After a strong first period, the Penguins chased the Devils in the second. Defensive lapses and missed assignments augmented New Jersey’s sharp transition game. In the third period, the Penguins stormed the offensive zone and rallied to force overtime.
On Sunday, the Philadelphia Flyers tried to emulate the Devils, but the Penguins quick-strike ability was on full display as Sheary sprung Derick Brassard for an early breakaway goal. The Penguins were on their heels, then — with barely a moment’s notice — the Penguins scored. Eventually, the Penguins’ offensive pressure cracked the Flyers and decided the game.
The Penguins’ defensive abilities certainly did not win the game.
Winning a Different Way
Everything which is old will be new again. It has been a long time since a team won a Stanley Cup with unfiltered, primal offensive power. But the NHL evolution to speed and skill has made it possible again.
Sure, some coaches will revert to dogma and demand their teams play more conservatively in the playoffs. But, that seems almost impossible when the intensity and speed of transition-offense teams collide. To play conservatively would be to yield the rush to the opponent and rely on inferior skills, such as defensive responsibility. It’s hard to imagine Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan yielding anything.
No, the game is ripe for an offensive team to win the Stanley Cup. The Penguins should give nothing and fully wrap their arms around their skill set.
Sidney Crosby has remarked on the uniqueness of the Penguins’ back to back championships, that it was special “to do it in different ways.”
The 2016 Penguins incarnation shot the puck from everywhere on the ice, then retrieved it. They didn’t score as many goals as they should have and squeaked by Eastern Conference teams despite dominating the puck.
The 2017 version was nearly the opposite. Tired and bruised, the Penguins gutted out just enough offense in big moments, despite often being outshot and out-chanced.
The 2018 version could win the Stanley Cup in yet a third way: Score. And keep scoring.
You might remember that last year’s team was the first to lead the league in scoring and also win it all since the 1992 Penguins, but without Letang in the playoffs, they were often hemmed in their own zone for long stretches of time. That made the counterattack their best option to win. Not this time.
Embrace Your Identity
The Penguins currently employ the league’s third-highest scorer (Evgeni Malkin), one of the game’s premier snipers (Kessel), a net-crashing crazy person who drives defenders insane (Patric Hornqvist), a third-line center with a 60 point history (Brassard), lightning fast wingers like Bryan Rust and Sheary, and offensive defensemen Letang and Justin Schultz.
Oh, and some guy named Crosby.
Rust is healthy and again adding sparks to the top lines. Even Sheary, who scored 53 points in 61 games last season but has struggled this year, is now clicking with Brassard on the third line.
Riley Sheahan has proven some offensive prowess on the fourth line, and may soon get to ride with net-crasher Zach Aston-Reese on his wing. And, Crosby has three straight multi-point games.
Sullivan recently summed up a couple of his team’s uneven efforts in this way: “Sometimes we try to outscore opponents instead of outplaying them.”
The Penguins can do both: Outplay and outscore their opponents. When the Penguins embrace that, they will be the toughest opponent in the NHL. Four deep offensive combinations create matchup disadvantages for every other team in the NHL.
The Penguins’ offensive fire also has added side effect: It’s tough to play physically on the edge when the other side has a lead or a lethal power play.
For the 2018 Penguins, scoring won’t be an issue. These could be the most fun playoffs the NHL has experienced since the offensive salad days of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky.
Once again, the Penguins are at the forefront, and it’s time to go for it.