Kris Letang discussed the movement and team commitment to support the puck on the power play. Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins yielded an unwieldy 15 shorthanded goals because indeed the team at times would not support the puck or each other. Things are different this season and as Letang discussed the positives of the new power play wrinkles he could also have been describing the new Penguins identity.
Even as the Penguins lost three in a row last week, they were not ugly losses. They were tribulations caused by a patchwork lineup that struggled to score goals but didn’t struggle to play good hockey.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to lose,” Zach Aston-Reese told PHN last Saturday after Vegas shutout the Penguins despite a disparity in chances and puck possession which favored the Penguins.
Even with four players including three forwards who did not make the team out of training camp, the Penguins puck pressure was impressive. They forechecked well, backchecked with desperation and largely held their structure when asked to clog the neutral zone.
Its something of an anomaly the Penguins haven’t drawn a lot of power plays. Their style and level of play should have earned a few more chances over the past few games. Instead, they have been awarded only two chances over the past three games. And so Letang’s evaluation of the power play may include rusty the next time they get a chance. But his praise rings true of several aspects of the new Penguins game.
“I think we’re moving a lot more than we used to. The support is all over the ice, so when somebody is trying to retrieve the puck, he has support on every side,” Letang said.
There are only three of the original Penguins crew remaining who partied on the South Side, matured together and lifted the 2009 Stanley Cup as mere kids. In fact, only eight of the Penguins 20 players who hit the ice Tuesday night lifted the 2017 Stanley Cup. There has been an overhaul and a makeover since then. The Pittsburgh Penguins rebooted around those three players–Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Letang.
And Letang’s further explanation of the power play, assuming they get a few more someday, spoke to the core of the new Penguins identity.
“It keeps you in the rhythm. Everybody is interchangeable,” he said. “There’s no set position. Obviously you want your defenseman on top, but it’s fun to be free and acting on your instinct.”
The Penguins are free of their past trappings. The drama is external, not internal. The never-ending Penguins drama has revolved around GM Jim Rutherford finding a team willing to trade nothing for something and accept the salary cap ramifications. The drama has been an extraordinary rash of injuries. But the drama has not been dissension in the locker room.
“Everybody is supporting the guy trying to retrieve (the puck),” said Letang.
Regardless of the context, the words everybody and supporting in the same sentence should bring an internal smile to head coach Mike Sullivan and a few more smiles to fans who wondered why the talented team rolled over and played dead at the end of last season.
Sullivan used the Penguins adversity to mold the hot steel into the team he wanted. The newbies like Adam Johnson, Joseph Blandisi, and Sam Lafferty were dropped into the lineup out of necessity but their intensity and desperation to stick in the NHL meant they would play the right way. And other Penguins lines missing key ingredients were forced to play the right way to survive.
Players such as Brandon Tanev, Sam Lafferty, Dominik Simon, Jared McCann, and Nick Bjugstad have added speed and defensive responsibility to the Penguins lineup. They’ve also added grit to a lineup which has often been short on such winning hockey intangibles.
And suddenly, Sullivan has an entire team playing, “the right way,” and that is, “tough to play against,” and every other hockey term which denotes playing a structured, physical game. Doing so early in the season will set a tone and blueprint.
It built something the Penguins have lacked for a while. The Pittsburgh Penguins found their new identity, whether Kris Letang realizes how much he said, or not.