Penguins hoping a little defense goes a long way

Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t even bother to look at the tape.

Video evidence of a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia in Game 6 of last
year’s Stanley Cup playoffs wasn’t required for the Pittsburgh
Penguins goaltender to relive every agonizing moment. He spent the
early portions of the offseason worrying about it before
permanently deleting it from his memory.

”I forgot about the games, but not about what happened,”
Fleury said.

Good idea.

The whipping served as a fitting end to one of the more bizarre
postseason series in recent memory. The Flyers cut down the NHL’s
highest scoring team by turning every period into a
defense-optional shootout, one that exploited Pittsburgh’s
inability to commit itself at the end of the ice where Fleury
works.

Philadelphia scored a whopping 30 goals in six games, a number
more fitting than the local rec league than the sometimes brutal –
not to mention offensive-stifling – two-month slog to the Stanley
Cup.

The Penguins know that for all the firepower the game’s most
explosive lineup provides, if they don’t shore things up on defense
they’ll be home well before the calendar hits June.

”You have to learn from that stuff,” forward Pascal Dupuis
said. ”We’ll try to take the positives from (Philadelphia) and try
to build off it.”

Given all of a week to put a roster together, don’t expect coach
Dan Bylsma to make drastic changes on a team that finished a
middling 17th in goals allowed last season. On most nights, a
lineup that features reigning league MVP Evgeni Malkin and a
finally healthy Sidney Crosby doesn’t need to play lights out
defense to win.

Just a little, though, could go a long way to helping the
Penguins earn a slightly easy road through the playoffs. Pittsburgh
narrowly missed out on winning the Atlantic Division title, the
difference between being the top seed in the postseason or dropping
to fourth and facing their archrivals.

A couple of stops here and there could have drastically altered
their season. They did little to address the defense with personnel
during the offseason outside of trading Zbynek Michalek back to
Phoenix. Pittsburgh also traded for goaltender Tomas Vokoun to help
take some of the burden off Fleury to carry the team through 99-day
sprint through the 48-game regular season.

The 36-year-old Vokoun is no stranger to staying busy after
spending most of his career with the likes of Nashville and
Florida. He watched Fleury and backup Brent Johnson often left to
fend for themselves after their teammates were caught out of
position trying to make something happen offensively.

”I’m sure there’s going to be adjustments after what happened
to them last year,” Vokoun said. ”They know they’re going to have
to play a little bit differently to be successful later.”

The way Vokoun sees it, the Penguins don’t need to reinvent the
neutral zone trap. They just need to be a little more judicious
about jumping into the play.

”We do have a lot of offense, we don’t need to take chances,”
he said. ”I think we can beat teams playing a sound game and being
opportunistic when there are chances.”

The issue, the Penguins insist, is execution, not a lack of
talent. Kris Letang is considered a Norris Trophy candidate and
Brooks Orpik provides steady leadership from the blue line. They
still believe Paul Martin is worth his hefty $5 million contract.
They like what they have in Ben Lovejoy and Mat Niskanen.

Of course, more than two guys playing defense is required most
of the time. It’s not that Crosby and Malkin are poor defensively,
but the players admit there were times last year when they’d let in
a soft goal or two and figured it was no big deal, assuming they
would get it back quickly.

And that’s what happened during the regular season. The
playoffs, however, were another matter.

Pittsburgh led in each of the first three games against the
Flyers, and lost all three. The Penguins showed grit in extending
things to six games, but by the end, they were out of gas.

The four-month NHL lockout only added to the misery. And the
Penguins begin the 2013 season where the 2012 season ended on
Saturday when they face the Flyers in Philadelphia.

”I’m looking forward to getting back with those guys,” Fleury
said.

He’s not the only one. The Penguins are considered an early
Stanley Cup favorite, with their combination of experience and
explosiveness figuring to be a huge advantage in a truncated
regular season.

Having two of the best players on the planet healthy and in
their prime helps too. Malkin is coming off a career year in which
he led the NHL with 109 points while Crosby is nearly a year
removed from his latest bout with concussion-like symptoms. The
25-year-old superstar also has the peace of mind that comes from
signing a 12-year contract extension that will keep him in
Pittsburgh until he’s nearly middle age.

Yet that sense of security doesn’t mean there’s also a lack of
urgency. He spent the better part of two years away from the game.
It’s time to get going.

”We’ve got high expectations,” Crosby said. ”That’s the way
it’s always going to be with our team and that’s the way we want it
to be.”

Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP