Streaking Penguins winning with defense

Brooks Orpik couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but something

felt off.

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

Cup.

”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

up.”

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

vanished.

”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

night.

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

less.

”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

history.

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

anymore.

”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

issues.

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

7-10 days.

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

Monday.

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

the way.

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

against Montreal.

”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