Friday night’s matchup against the L.A. Kings was a nearly textbook team performance by the Pittsburgh Penguins under Dan Bylsma’s system. While specific players, and many, could be mentioned for their stellar play, the main focus here is in the overall cohesion and fluidity of a group of 19 guys who played in that game.
The one blemish on this performance was their propensity for drawing the attention of the refs and ending up in the penalty box a little more than one would like, including Dan Bylsma, who commented midway through the game that they really had not had the chance to get their five-man flow going.
That being said, it was a thing of beauty to watch how the defensemen worked in concert with at least one back-checking forward at all times to keep Marc-Andre Fleury feeling safe, secure, and confident as he absorbed more shots than he deflected. That is, when the puck managed to even get that close. It is clear that whoever is on the ice, from a first line player to a fourth line man, all heads are always up, lanes are covered, and they are in constant motion, making the Pens look downright indefatigable. As a result, the Kings were involuntarily generous on the giveaways in both the neutral zone and just inside the blue line if they were lucky enough to get that far.
What else was noticeable defensively is that no matter how close the puck got to the net, three guys were on it, eyes sharp and sticks persistent. The reward was puck possession and a smooth transition up ice.
The offensive play was no different. Gone are the days of trying to force passes more east-west than north-south up a narrow strip of neutral zone as if the boards were electric fences to be avoided. The transition game had men situated strategically along the boards or approaching the boards and available for the defenseman to move the puck north-south using the boards as an extra guy. This stretched out the opponents who had to travel farther to make plays, and it gave the Pens a lot of ice to work with. The result is a speedy puck and a lot of long possessions in the Kings’ defensive zone–often deep in that zone–for maddeningly long periods of time. If ever a torture device for wearing down an opponent was ever devised, this is it.
Special teams got a workout with the Pens having to battle against seven penalty kills, six with the Kings having a man advantage and one 5-on-3 situation, which resulted in the Kings’ only goal. The penalty kill has also transformed into a more offensive and aggressive machine.
Players are more active in the defensive zone, and lately, they seem to be always looking for the chance to make a two-man short-handed breakaway. They are also not looking to just dump the puck and retreat as their first option. It’s nice to see that whoever breaks goes in hard and, often with a second man, tries to at least tie the puck up behind the net to chew up time. This effort is not without an eye to the opposing net, and when they lose that battle, they recover with lightning speed. Before tonight’s game, the Penguins’ penalty kill has improved by 5% from 80% to 85%, a substantial jump.
The power play seems to be coming on as well though the improvement is not as significant as on the PK. On the primary line, Malkin is where he needs to be: off the right circle, and Crosby seems to really relish speeding around between the corners and the back of the net, sometimes venturing to the half-wall. He’s got the goalie’s head snapping back and forth in an attempt to keep track of him. Gonchar is truly the quarterback dictating dizzying puck movement, and Letang is proving to be an apt pupil under his tutelage. The final piece of the puzzle is the nice problem of having any one of three guys in front of the net creating havoc: Guerin, Kunitz, or Sykora. It’s coming together.
Nothing should be taken away from the Kings though. They are a big, tough team that refused to give up. The hits kept coming, and the onslaught persisted as they would pick themselves up time and again, wave after wave, to battle into the Pens’ defensive zone. The team has a lot of heart and the potential to do better next season if they do not break into the playoff picture this year, which is all but impossible now.
The Penguins are peaking at the right time, and fans are starting to see a glimpse of what Pittsburgh really has for a team.