Keys to Losing

At a time when the Pittsburgh Penguins were off to a red hot start, hovering at the top of the league with only three losses in their first 14 games, some might wonder critically why the focus here would be on losing. The answer is no more evident than in the back-to-back losses over the weekend on the West Coast, that upped the loss column to 5, and the very recent loss to Boston, bringing the tally to 6.

Lessons are best learned from failure moreso than from success, and it is never too late to look at why, in the midst of so many wins, the now six losses should be examined closely.

Foresight is 20/20. In those few losses, some disturbing patterns have emerged, and while they are disturbing, they are correctible. No doubt, teams around the league are looking just as closely at those keys to the Penguins’ losses as they are analyzing and breaking down what makes the 2008-2009 Stanley Cup team a formidable winner. It could be argued that, particularly from the San Jose game, the Sharks made a special study of it. Of all the teams that handed Pittsburgh a loss thus far, the Sharks lived up to their name, and with cold, methodical, unrelenting precision–and an otherworldly goaltender in Evgeni Nabokov–they were the first team to make Pittsburgh look truly vulnerable.

In the first two losses, Sergei Gonchar, Evgeni Malkin, Tyler Kennedy, and Kris Letang were all present. In the last three losses, those players were out, and the Boston game claimed yet another blueliner in Brooks Orpik who left the game in the 1st period and did not return. The Penguins have dealt with this kind of adversity before with Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined during one season. They have managed to bear down and forge ahead. They are still that deep and have a stable of hungry young guys who are being given golden opportunities to shine. Injuries aside, here are the keys to losing that occur no matter who is on the ice and who is injured because it comes down to basics:

  • Allowing the opponent to have the boards. In each of the losses, the Penguins came out flat, and instead of dominating the boards from end to end separating their opponents from the puck, they allowed their opponents to drive them off the puck, winning the puck-possession battles. Likewise, they moved away from using the boards effectively as an “extra man” to advance the puck quickly and accurately either out of the danger of their defensive zone or into the offensive zone. While the stretch pass is a nice addition to their toolbox, the Hal Gill-style of a forceful ricochet is lacking.
  • Too many and too poorly-executed passes. Lateral passes instead of the North-South kind, including being too cute up the middle (and in front of one’s own net!), forced unnecessary giveaways. The purpose of the pass is the advantage of speed and the forcing of the opponent to have to awkwardly change direction in the hopes of exposing a weakness that can be just enough to result in a goal. Poor execution also falls to the goalie. When Marc-Andre Fleury is on, he’s a beast. When he’s off, he’s cooked, and it starts with his handling of the puck around his own real estate. Puck-handling has always been something he has had to work at, and in the past season and the beginning of this one, he has looked more confident–not of late. Add to that in the Sharks game the fact that the Sharks would only wait so long for the likes of Alex Goligoski and company to hold the puck behind their net to set up for a break-out before they boldly stormed in and disrupted. On more than one occasion, the Sharks broke up the break-out to the point where the first pass to the second defenseman could not be cleanly executed from behind the net. That leaves Fleury stuck with one D-man still behind the net, and the other on the half-wall harried by a Shark as he tries to collect the pass and get it up ice.
  • Lack of communication. The Pens have already been marked as the team that communicates the most on the ice by the hockey pundits. When they don’t, it shows, and never more starkly than in the losses to the L.A. Kings and the San Jose Sharks. In the Kings game, the forwards time and again pulled a criss-cross as they approached the Pens’ defensive end, and the Pens’ blueliners fell all over themselves trying to figure out whether to follow their man or stay at home. It resulted in getting the puck behind the Pens defense, leaving Fleury to fend for himself.
  • Befuddled by neutral zone traps. The Pens are fast, but trying to single-handedly carry the puck through a clogged neutral zone is ill-advised whether you are a first-line phenom or a fourth-line role-player. In one of the losses, the opposing team lined four players across their defensive blue line with one defenseman back, breaking up the Pens’ attempts to bust through, sending odd-man breaks the other way. In the New Jersey Devils game, the neutral zone was staked out up the middle and on the boards–hockey’s version of the tar pit is their calling card–boring but very effective. In the San Jose game, the Sharks just came at the Pens before they could get out of their own defensive end–period. Time and time again, it has been discussed that the way to break a trap is to Murphy dump the puck to force the opposing team’s defense to turn around and make a play. Then, the forecheckers come in and battle to win the puck and set-up their cycle. Sometimes a hard shot to the corners will break it, but in the San Jose game, that method was ineffective because the Sharks beat the Penguin forecheckers easily to the puck.
  • NOT hitting with their best shot. While the hits from the Pens remain in the mid-20s to mid-30s on the stats sheets, it’s hard to believe they are so “not memorable.” In each of the Pens’ wins, they came out hitting AND winning the puck from the hit as a result of true, forceful, legal separation. In the losses, they did not appear to have their hearts in it, and as a result they were not able to gain the puck as successfully after a hit.
  • Running the goaltender. Particularly in the West Coast games, teams were having their lawless way with Marc-Andre Fleury, and quite honestly, he should be spitting nails at his defense for it. Too many runs on Fleury were happening, throwing him horribly out of position. How does one stop that? Make the other team pay on the Pens’ power play, speaking of which…
  • The power(less) play. The powerplay continues to be poor under Mike Yeo. One could argue that the loss of Gonchar (and now Letang) is having a deep impact, but Goligoski is a deft set-up man IF he does not waste too much time bringing the puck up. The Sharks, once again, got in the face of the Pens’ set-up guy, not at their blue line, BEYOND the blue line into the Pens’ face-off circles. That shows they have no fear. In the five losses, the Pens have registered 22 shots on 19 power plays! In the Boston game, they had one powerplay and 0 shots. When a power play is as ineffective as the Penguins’ man-advantage, teams will run all day on the goalie and gladly take the penalty because chances are excellent that it won’t cost them the game. That only changes when the Pens get serious about putting pucks on the net. Sid on the half-wall (or occasionally on the point) is a complete waste of time. It gives him entirely too much to think about and second-guess where he wants to place the puck. This often results in him throwing another pass that gets broken up for a short-handed situation, rather than taking a shot. This wastes the efforts of Guerin, Kunitz, and even Jordan Staal who are set up in front of the net creating a ton of traffic. Where should Sid be? Down low, just out of the goalie’s line of peripheral vision. When placed there last year, Sid was able to set up the guys in close on the net, make the opposing goalie twitchy, and even sneak in for his own score. Word on the street (a November 10 discussion between sports talk radio host Mark Madden and hockey writer Rob Rossi) is that everyone wants Sid to play there, but Sid doesn’t want to play there. This seems selfish and out of character for Sid, but hey, if that is the case, then Dan Bylsma could take a page out of Steeler Coach Mike Tomlin’s playbook and pull a Mendenhall…

This may sound harsh, but as Madden pondered, maybe Sid is not built for the power play, that methodical set-up kind of situation. He’s a run and gun, quick direction change in tight spaces kind of player.

Interesting notable: in a delayed penalty situation that brought Fleury out of the net and an extra attacker on, the Pens actually set up and moved the puck incredibly, resulting in a goal. There’s hope. Additionally, the Pens should look at the tape on the Sharks’ power play. They moved the puck with deft authority anywhere they wanted it and peppered the net.

Here’s a repeat of a plea made last year: What’s wrong with approaching a man-advantage situation like a 5-on-5 cycle? Why does cycling the puck stop when the power play is on? Jordan Staal’s line could manage it even without Kennedy by using Pascal Depuis, Chris Kunitz (who meshed immediately with Staal upon his arrival last year) or even Craig Adams who can play center or wing and has the energy and quickness to carry it off. If they become the lead power play unit and grind down the PK unit (maybe even getting the odd goal), Bylsma can bring on a second unit of a Crosby, Kunitz, and Guerin (or Mike Rupp) and wreak havoc on some tired bodies.

There are a lot of games left and as injuries heal, the team will re-form. However, every player needs to keep it simple: communication, puck separation from hard hits, quick and clean passes with effective use of the boards, more shots on net with traffic in front, quick dumps and fast forechecks to set up the cycle. All of these things can be achieved by every player on the team regardless of star status or skill.

The Pens are a resilient, tight, proud bunch. Teams are gunning for them, and knowing that, they need to settle down, take a breath, and get back to the keys to winning.

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