There are all sorts of statistics that can help define whether a team is playing well or poorly. From record and points total to the much-maligned plus-minus to all sorts of fancy advanced stats. How about one number that is as good as any to describe the Pittsburgh Penguins?
That could be goal differential – the difference in the number of goals scored vs. the number of goals allowed. The Penguins lead the NHL at plus-36.
That’s not in and of itself a huge number despite being the best in the league. Tampa Bay led way last season at an eye-popping plus-103.
But the Penguins’ number sure does point to a well-rounded style of play that has served them well.
“Guys are playing well on both sides of the puck,” defenseman Kris Letang said Wednesday after the Penguins practiced at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
“I think guys are doing the little details, and they’re committed to doing the little things out there that in the last few years I don’t think we were doing.”
That might be a different way of saying, with the support of the goal differential stat, what the Penguins have been preaching all season.
And what they have been practicing all season.
“Since the second game of the year, we’ve really focused on limiting scoring chances against. That’s a really big focus of ours,” defenseman Jack Johnson said.
“We have enough offense and ability in here that we’re going to get offense from our defense. Having that mindset going into every game, being hard to play against, not giving the other team many freebies, so to speak. If they’re going to score, they have to come a full 200 feet – making them work for every inch they get.”
So why the specific reference to the second game of the season? That’s when star center Evgeni Malkin got hurt, joining winger Bryan Rust.
It is an injury train that has never stopped. The Penguins are approaching 200 man-games lost, and the absences have included key players and long-term injuries.
That has convinced the Penguins to step up their two-way play. Over the past 30 years, the Penguins have had enviable offensive talent, some of the best in the world, and they have won five Stanley Cups. But defensive responsibility hasn’t always been a team-wide strength.
Their standing in league in goal differential says this season is different.
“That just kind of shows that we have a little more focus on defending this year,” Rust said. “That kind of proves that good defense leads to offense. That’s kind of what we’ve been preaching, and that’s so far what’s been happening.”
Johnson and Letang also pointed out that the Penguins’ goaltending – Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray have helped the team to stand ranked tied for seventh in goals against per game, 2.72 – is heavily responsible.
So is having forwards who not only will work both ends of the rink to help out the defensemen but also can produce offense when the defensemen put in the sweat to get them the puck.
“It’s a commitment. Playing defense isn’t fun or easy,” Johnson said. “You just need to be have to be able to embrace it, knowing that it’s going to get you the results you want in the end.”