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PHN Extra: The Driving You Nuts and Bolts of Pens Defense

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(Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire)

It wasn’t the same old story but it was the same old song and dance. In Game 1 Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Washington Capitals in heartbreaking fashion. The Washington Post writer referred to watching the Capitals ability to deal with prosperity  is “like watching a baby in the bathtub with a toaster.”

It was a scathing and funny piece by Barry Svrluga.

On the ice, Game 1 was the stereotypical playoff matchup between the Penguins and Capitals. The Penguins only waited 17 seconds to display poor defensive execution and hand a prime scoring opportuniy to the Capitals. Evgeni Kuznetsov buried the opener over the glove of Matt Murray.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. The 2017-18 Penguins season has featured a multitude of egregious defensive miscues in all three zones. Thursday night was just the Feature Presentation of this serial drama.

The Bad:

First and foremost, Penguin blueliner’s were burnt most of the night after pinches in the offensive zone. That isn’t always to the fault of the defenseman, often (as PHN has repeatedly diagrammed) the high-zone forward has failed to cover the defensive responsibility. Enter Jake Guentzel on Kuznetsov’s opener:

Early in a 0-0 game, the defenseman is supposed to make that pinch. Once the pinch is completed, it’s the forward’s responsibility to work vacated ice. In this particular situation, Guentzel geared himself towards the slot, which left him unable to play the breakout pass to Alex Ovechkin in the neutral zone nor, play Kuznetsov joining the rush.

The Capitals like to spring their left wing in transition. Hence Ovechkin’s placement in the neutral zone during the development of the play. With this, Kristopher Letang (*homage to Pierre) has to defend Ovechkin. His gap control wasn’t perfect–he let Ovechkin work a little bit ahead of him until the Penguins defensive blueline. The floating pass from Ovechkin was good enough with Guentzel failing to right his original wrong.

Letang did make up for the earlier miniscule error. Letang had better positioning against Ovechkin, and sealing him towards the wall. Although later in the game, Letang cheated prematurely in the offensive zone on the Ovechkin goal in the third period.

Mental defensive errors continued even when the Penguins gained the lead in the third period. Chad Ruhwedel was caught too far into the offensive zone with three minutes remaining in regulation (Even Dan Kingerski noticed. Just kidding, Dan!). Luckily for the Penguins, the Captials failed to exploit the gaffe. It was one of the many times that the Captials couldn’t cash in on an opportunity the Penguins handed to them. As Dan noted in his Game 1 analysis, the hockey gods punished the Capitals for refusing their gifts.

The Good:

Whether it be the hockey gods or Guentzel’s adjustments, Capital punishment began. The development of Patric Hornqvist’s third period tally was the alter ego of the opening 17 seconds.

Guentzel read the pinch perfectly and owned the puck at the point. After the pass, Justin Schultz kept his head up and let the shooting lane develop. Credit to Ovechkin who tried to block the shot, but we won’t judge his technique. (Saturday Night Fever, anyone?)

The Penguins made the right adjustments towards the end of the night on Thursday with three quick goals on plays that developed from offensive zone possession. Neither the Penguins nor Capitals can be content with their defensive efforts in Game 1, though. Both teams need more structure and must be better defensively in their end of the ice.  Once again, the pressure in on the Capitals with little room for error.

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