Streaking Penguins winning with defense
Brooks Orpik couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but something
The Pittsburgh Penguins had just finished off a string of thrill
ride victories over Montreal, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Toronto
earlier this season when the veteran defenseman – and apparently
the rest of his teammates – decided they’d had enough.
Sure, the Penguins were winning, just not the way they wanted
to. Grabbing games 7-6 or 6-5 makes for good highlight fodder,
sure, but it’s hardly the way to get a firm grip on the Stanley
”There was a handful of games we won early this year when you
leave the rink after the game and you’re not really satisfied,”
Orpik said. ”When that happens, you’ve got to change things
And just like that – at least on the surface – the NHL’s highest
scoring team grew a conscience. The risky passes through the
crowded neutral zone stopped. The lackadaisical backchecking
disappeared. The defensive breakdowns that often put goaltenders
Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun in difficult situations all but
”I think everyone has bought into what we’re doing here,”
Orpik said. ”Even our high-profile production guys like Sid
(Crosby). They’re putting team goals way ahead of individual goals.
We all realized what our ultimate goal here is.”
Hint: it’s not turning every night into a more intense version
of the NHL All-Star Game.
The Penguins beat Toronto 5-4 on March 9 to push their winning
streak at the time to a modest four games. Nine more victories have
followed, including a grinding 1-0 triumph over Montreal on Tuesday
In those games, Pittsburgh has allowed just nine goals, the
lowest total in the league over that span. The second-longest
streak in team history heading into Thursday’s visit from Winnipeg
includes seven wins when the Penguins have scored three goals or
”There are times we haven’t played our best, but our focus has
been strong defensively,” said Crosby, who still leads the NHL
with 54 points.
In the process, the Penguins have become comfortable playing the
kind of tight-checking, playoff-style hockey that portends a very
promising spring. The Canadiens outshot Pittsburgh 37-25 on Tuesday
night and spent long stretches in the offensive zone.
Yet Fleury was spectacular while stopping 22 shots and Vokoun
proved every bit Fleury’s equal when forced into spot duty in the
third period after Fleury left with an undisclosed injury. He
collided with teammate Tyler Kennedy and Montreal’s Brian Gionta.
Fleury was being evaluated on Wednesday and his status for Thursday
is uncertain, though coach Dan Bylsma said Vokoun will start
against the Jets.
Given a full intermission to get ready against the Canadiens,
the 14-year veteran turned aside all 15 shots he faced as the
Penguins posted their fourth combined shutout in franchise
Most of Montreal’s chances came from outside prime scoring
areas, as the Penguins did a solid job policing the front of the
net and keeping the surprising Canadiens at arm’s length. It’s a
game the Penguins might have lost six weeks ago. Not so much
”We’re more comfortable playing defense, more comfortable
defending when we do give up zone time,” Bylsma said. ”We were
confident and good in how we defended and we have been.”
Pittsburgh has vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference in
the process despite playing most of the month without reigning NHL
MVP Evgeni Malkin – out indefinitely with an upper body injury –
and having star defenseman Kris Letang limited by lower-body
Letang returned on Tuesday after missing three games with a
lower-body problem and played 24 minutes against the Canadiens only
to sustain a different lower-body injury. He was sent back to
injured reserve Wednesday morning. Bylsma expects Letang to be out
Though he’ll be missed, the timing of the injury shouldn’t
damage Pittsburgh’s depth. At the same time the Penguins made the
move on Letang, newly acquired defenseman Doug Murray participated
in an optional skate after being obtained in a trade with San Jose
The hulking 6-foot-3, 245-pound Murray could play as early as
Thursday, and the Penguins will certainly welcome his physical
presence in front of the net. The 33-year-old nicknamed
”Crankshaft” is a steamroller on skates, taking opponents who
like to create havoc near the crease and simply mauling them out of
Murray understands the comparisons between himself and fellow
Swede Ulf Samuelsson, who Pittsburgh brought in late during the
1991 season and promptly helped Mario Lemieux lead the Penguins to
their first Cup.
They’re both big. They’re both aggressive. They’re both in
charge of restoring order amid chaos.
Murray isn’t the only new guy in the dressing room. Pittsburgh
acquired forward Brenden Morrow from Dallas on Sunday, and Morrow
played just the way the Penguins expected in his Pittsburgh debut
”There was probably five times on the ice in terms of what he
was supposed to do, where he was supposed to go, he was bang on to
do that,” Bylsma said.
Morrow even took on Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban on two
separate occasions, the open-ice collisions drawing a roar from the
Consol Energy Crowd. They also sent a message to Morrow’s new
teammates he is all in.
So are the rest of the Penguins. They were embarrassed by last
year’s first-round flameout against Philadelphia in which they
surrendered 30 goals in six games. After some early tweaking,
things seem to be falling into place.
Though Pittsburgh insists it’s not focused on making a run at
the 17-game winning streak put together by the 1992-93 Penguins,
with some very winnable games on the horizon, it looks like they
have a chance. Not that they’re paying attention or anything.
Of course, the 1992-93 version of the club indeed raced through
the regular season, preparing for a third straight Stanley Cup. But
then, as a No. 1 seed with 119 points, the Penguins were bit by the
New York Islanders and eliminated in the second round.
”We’re all aware of where we’re at,” Orpik said. ”We aren’t
trying to put anything to it, to be honest. We’re just trying to
play the right way.”
Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP