On Friday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Washington Capitals in an impressive showing of what head coach Mike Sullivan often calls “five-man unit.” The Penguins defensemen were active on the rush, and the resulting additional pressure forced Washington to chase the Penguins through the neutral and offensive zones. The defensemen picked their spots in much less volume on Saturday in a 1-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
Why and how? Or, is it how and why?
“It wasn’t necessarily a conversation before the game. We’re trying to play a certain style of play. And so we work on these things daily, on our team strategy,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said before the game on Saturday. “So we’re trying to be a bit predictable for one another, but yet unpredictable for our opponents. These guys have certain rules of thumb with certain parameters on how they activate off the offensive blue line…”
Sullivan’s response to PHN directly cut to–the Penguins defensemen take what the game gives them. Or at least that’s the “defense” for the defense not providing as much offensive push as it did last season.
The Penguins are structured for defensemen to be active, but there’s more to it. Do the defensemen trust the forwards to cover their butt?
“I think it goes back to our leadership and just the commitment of the players of buying into how we’re trying to play here collectively as a five-man unit on the ice. That’s such an important aspect of it,” Sullivan continued. “And when you can build a certain level of trust between the defensemen and the forwards that everybody is going to do their jobs, I think it eliminates hesitation. It eliminates duplication where two guys are doing the same job, and it makes us a whole lot more difficult to play against.”
The Penguins controlled most of the game on Friday because they most often outnumbered Washington. The PHN+ report card scored John Marino and Mike Matheson very well, and the game was perhaps the best of the season for each.
The game and inclusion of defensemen in the offensive rush contrasted much of the season because the Penguins’ blue liners have been first-pass and done. To whit, the Penguins defensemen rank near the bottom of the NHL with only four goals through 26 games.
Pittsburgh Penguins Past Not Prologue
Sullivan didn’t admit spurring his defenseman for an additional push on Friday night. We already did the Penguins chalkboard in the PHN+ report card, but the lack of activating defensemen in many games has lowered the offensive output.
Has that increased the defensive performance instead?
There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. The Penguins defensemen haven’t been involved in the play enough. That rests on Kris Letang, Marino, and Matheson because those are the three d-men most capable. It’s part of Letang’s game, it’s part of Marino’s potential, and it’s the primary strength of Matheson’s game.
Instead, the production has been more static from the blue line and top of the zone, though credit Marcus Pettersson for pushing the issue more than he had previously.
“I think as a team we’ve done a good job of contributing from the back end and keeping pucks alive, and we want to play that way,” Petterson said. “It’s a five-man unit. So I think so far, I have stepped it up, and I think I have more to give, too.”
However, they have bubbled in the middle to top tier of defenseman scoring with cumulative 26 assists. The Pittsburgh Penguins defense has only four goals, and no one has more than one. Letang, Marino, Pettersson, and Matheson have one marker each.
That’s it. The 26 assists are respectable but indicative of the type of assists: supporting not creating.
Last season, the Penguins defensemen accounted for 28 goals and 96 assists for 124 points. They will fall well short of that at the current pace.
Chad Ruhwedel has just one assist and no goals. Sullivan has called him an unsung hero who is best when you don’t notice him. That’s good, but is that good enough? He’s not the fastest d-man and doesn’t have much offensive game.
He’s paired with Mike Matheson in an attempt to distribute the offensive push. The numbers aren’t as good, but the lack of goals-against count, too. And it appears the Penguins have compromised.
Perhaps Matheson described the modified approach best.
“As a defenseman, it’s very easy to get caught caring and thinking about (offense) a lot. And when you do and start forcing the issue, that’s when you really get into trouble. So obviously we haven’t been on the scoreboard as defensemen a lot lately. But I think the idea of focusing on that and trying to figure out how we can add more offense is a way to get into trouble, instead of continuing to look at the fact that we haven’t been giving up many chances, many goals, and building on that,” Matheson said. “…Focusing on that and knowing that our abilities and our assets well will lead to more offensive. Actually, for sure, we’re are doing a good job of sealing the walls in the offensive zone and keeping pucks alive during the rush in the second wave.
And that’s what you have to do, and the offense will come eventually.”
Or maybe it won’t. Putting the Pittsburgh Penguins puzzle together continues. Perhaps we’ll eventually see what it looks like and get to judge, for real, if the tradeoff is a net positive or negative. This keyboard steers toward negative. More performances like Washington will heighten the Penguins chances. They probably don’t have the people to do it, but we’ll keep an open mind.