For the past couple of years, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ system has been based on the idea that the best defense is a good offense. In other words, go north, keep the puck in the attacking zone, be aggressive on the forecheck and tire out the opponent.
Saturday’s 8-5, run-and-gun win over the Winnipeg Jets is not exactly the look the Penguins players or coaching staff had in mind.
“I don’t think either coach is going to be real impressed with the opportunities out on the ice,” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “That game was a little loose, a lot more open than we anticipated. There were a bunch of bounces going on.
“I thought our team responded well after getting down 2-0 [by the 8:04 mark of the first period]. We played the next 30 minutes where we needed to play it, then it got a little bit open again in the third period, where there were chances both ways and Winnipeg could’ve gotten a couple more. I think both coaches will take the VCR tape and burn it.”
Although Pittsburgh wasn’t thrilled with the wide-open nature of the contest, the team did get something it had been looking for – secondary scoring. With the bulk of the Penguins’ recent goals coming off the sticks of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, they’ll need a more balanced attack down the stretch. They got it Saturday, with goals from seven players on all four lines and points from 11, and it was the return of center Jordan Staal, sidelined 15 games with a knee injury, that helped open up some space.
“I think you immediately see the effect of another quality centerman in the middle of the ice,” Bylsma said. “Dustin Jeffrey’s goal was a play by Staalsy, and there was more offense created just by his presence there. And it made a difference defensively, made it tougher for them, just to have his speed and size there in the middle of the ice.”
Malkin and Neal, of course, still found their way onto the scoresheet. Neal collected an assist and an upper-shelf goal right off a Malkin faceoff win, while all Malkin did was tie his single-game career high with five points (1G, 4A) in his 400th NHL contest, giving himself a five-point cushion atop the NHL scoring race.
Malkin’s pretty goal on a breakaway is the kind of thing Pittsburghers have gotten used to seeing from the gifted, 25-year-old Russian. He’s elevated his game to a new level this year, however, by paying attention to other elements of his game, like the faceoff win that led to Neal’s goal. It’s a page Malkin took from the book of a teammate who’s well-known for his consistent efforts to improve his all-around game.
“I saw how Sid [Crosby] played last year and I started working,” Malkin said. “Now I understand how important faceoffs [are]. If you win, we control the puck and have a chance to score.”
Malkin and Neal’s linemate, Chris Kunitz, also tied his single-game high with four points (1G, 3A), a rare offensive reward for what has often been a low-profile job.
“He adds a lot of speed and physicality to who he plays with,” Bylsma said. “That opens up room; it also opens up loose pucks when you force the defense to make plays they don’t want to make. Geno’s maybe one of the best at jumping on those opportunities, and James is one of the guys with the trigger.
“Chris does a lot of the force, aggression and speed of that line, and the other guys get their names on the stat sheet a little more than he does. But, tonight, he got four points.”
Defenseman Kris Letang also scored twice for the Penguins, and forward Richard Park – a 35-year-old veteran originally drafted by Pittsburgh in 1994 – netted his 100th in the NHL, an important goal that restored a two-goal lead for the Penguins just 19 seconds after the Jets had closed within one.
Despite the welcome offensive surge by a team that had scored only six times in its last four games, the Penguins know they’ll want to get back to their system Sunday against a Tampa Bay Lightning club that boasts offensive threats like Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier.
“The best way to keep an offensive player like [Stamkos] off the scoreboard is to keep him in his own end the whole night,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “We don’t want it to be a 50-50 game, exchanging chances.
“I think we can do a better job of spending more time in their zone and controlling the play better, and that’ll cut down on some of our chances against. It’s really no secret, but it’s the formula. If everybody commits to it, it increases your chances of keeping them off the scoresheet.”