CRANBERRY — You might have noticed something missing from three of the last four Pittsburgh Penguins games.
There has been a distinct lack of scoring chances, especially high-quality chances against the Penguins. The same team that, for a couple or few seasons, has handled leads like an unwanted house guest and defensive responsibility like homework from the substitute teacher has decided it’s time to grow up.
In two of the last three games, the team shut out the offensively talented Anaheim Ducks and Buffalo Sabres, and they’ve won four in a row.
Now and then, a player’s answer will write the column with minimal input needed from the writer. Monday, Penguins defenseman Kris Letang dropped what could be considered a bombshell with a matter-of-fact acknowledgment.
He sort of shrugged with and raised his eyebrows, knowing full well what he said was new but simultaneously the stone-cold truth.
Speaking with Pittsburgh Hockey Now, the defenseman tacitly admitted a flawed mindset that has exasperated fans and probably coaches, too. He also pointed to the embrace of the recent low-event style that isn’t common in these parts.
“I think we’re not 25 anymore, and that’s the first thing,” said Letang. “But yeah, sometimes you realize that when someone wants to score goals on you, and they’re willing to sell the farm to do so, playing good defense might actually lead to more or better offense.”
Missing the playoffs last season combined with an ominous start this season pointed to the inescapable conclusion that it was time to evolve, to accept that a different kind of game can yield success, and the Penguins have a different place in the NHL. The season hung in the balance as the team seemed resistant to those truths.
While Letang didn’t specifically use all of those words or descriptions, he delivered the unvarnished truth.
The Pittsburgh Penguins can’t simply blow past teams anymore.
In the recent Penguins wins, the team has played a structured game to limit chances and sometimes counter-attack rather than trying to blitz opponents with superior speed and pressure or wage a forecheck war with high-danger chances at both ends.
Yes, one of the Pittsburgh Penguins most known for a high-risk, high-reward game just embraced the new style with open arms.
“So even if we have tons of skill and we can manufacture offense with actually nothing happening on the ice, the fact that if you force the opposition to make a mistake, it’s going to give you a better chance,” Letang continued. “So I think that’s what’s happening.”
Letang confirmed PHN’s postgame analysis. The team is changing. It’s evolving. Penguins have sometimes adopted a counter-attack scheme against aggressive opponents like Buffalo and Anaheim.
It hasn’t been a long transition, nor has it been perfect. The win over the LA Kings wasn’t the low-event type of game, but getting the Penguins to accept they’re not the same team and not the same players they were once seemed like moving tectonic plates by hand.
Make no mistake, if Letang says it, it’s true.
Letang needed only one more sentence to acknowledge the past mistakes and confirm the importance of what he had just said. PHN followed up with the obvious observation, “Isn’t that what teams have done to you?”
“Yeah. That’s why a lot of people were saying we were beating ourselves,” he said with a bit of smirk.
Letang has been cast in a different role this season, and it seems he has no complaints. He’s no longer running the top power play or getting the primary offensive shifts. Instead, according to Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones, Letang has been the Penguins’ best “defensive” defenseman and allowed the fewest controlled zone entries.
The Penguins’ four game winning streak, beating San Jose, Anaheim, LA, and Buffalo, erased what became a dark situation with losses in five of six and resting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Worse, the Penguins were indeed beating themselves, with scores of odd-man rushes against, blown defensive coverages, and generally mystifying mental mistakes as they hyper-focused on scoring.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby also talked about a greater responsibility in the Penguins scheme, though cautioned against thinking they will be passive.
“I think that we don’t want to sacrifice defensively for something that’s not there. But at the same time, I think we have guys that can create offense,” Crosby said. “So I don’t think we’re going to sit back. If you start to see that, it’s probably not a great sign. We’re not really a good team when we sit back. I think that our ability to put pressure on the puck is what allows us to create offense. So I think we’ll continue to try to do that, but not try to force (it).”
Oh, so many times for so many years, they have forced the play to their own detriment. There are several layers to Letang’s comments, including slaying the notion that coach Mike Sullivan’s message had grown stale.
Yep, for the first time, the Penguins are now doing to others what has been done to them.
Who said an old dog can’t learn new tricks?