The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday with a grinding cycle game, tight defense and physical play. Yes, the Penguins beat a high-flying, speedy offensive team by favoring the gritty dimensions of their game. And the Penguins dusted off Sullivan’s 2016 offensive edict to shoot the puck from every angle and at every chance. They peppered Toronto with 39 shots.
Call it the evolution of the Penguins. And mark the date as the game the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins set about their course.
The game was more than a big win on the road and a solid effort against a talented team. The win marked the first appearance of the next generation Penguins who are no longer able to skate past teams or suppress offense through superior speed.
Easily winning races to loose pucks, swarming opponents in the neutral zone and devouring slower opposing defenses on the forecheck is no longer a given.
“I do think with the way the game has evolved a little bit, the way teams have evolved, more and more teams are playing a speed type of game,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, Monday. “And so the speed advantage has closed.”
Actually, the gap has been erased. Simply look at the teams which have given the Penguins fits over the past two seasons: the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, and now the Montreal Canadiens. Those teams aren’t more talented but they outskated the Penguins.
Even the formerly lumbering Washington Capitals now skate with the Penguins.
The proof was in the puck possession, or the lack thereof. The Penguins are still a fast hockey team, but no longer faster compared to much of their competition. To beat Toronto, the Penguins had to outwork them for loose pucks (not outskate them), tenderize their defense in the low zone with cycling plays, and aggressively pressure the puck in all three zones.
The Penguins outhit Toronto 30-21 and the Penguins had 24 hits in the first two periods before Toronto blinked and opened the game up.
Sullivan talked about cycling on numerous occasions this season and the Penguins’ belief it is an integral part of the new NHL game. He specifically referenced cycling last week when speaking about Daniel Sprong, “cycling, that we think is part of the game today.”
Last night, the Penguins executed flawlessly.
Watch this shift from the newly formed fourth line with Riley Sheahan on the left wing, Matt Cullen at center and Patric Hornqvist on the right wing (that’s an expensive and talented fourth line, which actually functioned as the third line for the final 25 minutes). The Penguins used their size and strength advantage off the wall for a scoring chance, won the loose-puck battle and used speed to get it back to the net.
“Regardless of who we were playing against (tonight), we wanted to hold onto the puck a little bit more. It’s a lot more fun playing that way and I think you can wear teams down,” said Sidney Crosby. “That plays to our strengths.”
Size, Strength…and Speed from the Five-Man Unit
Thursday, the Penguins traveled in packs of five. To cycle effectively means all five players are involved. To defend effectively means even the forwards may have to take a man deep in the defensive zone. The Penguins speed allowed them to skate with Toronto and the Penguins were in Toronto’s hip pocket all night.
Continuous puck pressure.
The Penguins are still fast, but now have 13 skaters over 6-feet tall and 10 skaters over 200 pounds (though Patric Hornqvist doesn’t figure into either category, he plays the grittiest game of all Penguins forwards). General Manager Jim Rutherford added size to deal with the physicality teams heaped on the Penguins in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
The Penguins were beaten up more than they’ll admit. Now, they have the ability to wear teams down on several levels. Jack Johnson was especially good and tough in the defensive zone, Thursday. Johnson 6-foot-1, 227 pounds and Jamie Oleksiak, 6-foot-7, 255 pounds each doled four hits. Several of the thunderous variety.
In the first five games of the season, the Penguins were a continuation of their struggles last season; they traded offensive chances, had sloppy defensive zone coverage, relied on their goaltender to erase mistakes.
None of that was true Thursday.
The Penguins 2016 championship style which was built on suffocating speed seems a lifetime ago in the ever-changing professional sports universe. What was true then isn’t necessarily true now. For every innovation, there is a reaction and for every reaction, there is a counter. The NHL watched the Penguins and decided to copy.
And so it is, the Penguins are fast but no longer the speed team. There are faster.
The blunt truth is the Penguins no longer have a speed advantage over most of their opponents. That is why their puck possession suffered through the first five games this season. But also why their grinding cycle game against Toronto was so vitally important.
The Penguins played to their strength, literally, against Toronto. And there are few teams with the same level of speed and size as the Penguins. Also, factor in the Penguins extraordinary skill and the Penguins again have the makings of a special team. They simply had to find their game.
And it looks like they did.
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