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