Defensive Commitment Paying Off for Pens

The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins lost in regulation was November 10, when a third-period collapse against the Boston Bruins saw them give up five goals in the final frame and lose, 7-4. Now on a 10-game winning streak that’s seen them rise to the top of the NHL standings, the Penguins just might have that game to thank for the success that’s followed.

In Pittsburgh’s last two home games, clinging to one-goal leads against the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils, the team has only ratcheted up the intensity as the clock wound down.

“We knew we weren’t good enough defensively early on, and it’s something we tried to change in our game, to help out our goalies or block shots or be better positionally,” said forward Chris Kunitz. “I think it’s something we’ve all been conscious and aware of, staying tighter and being in shot lanes and things like that.

“I think it’s just a part of pride. When you’re up by a goal and able to hold the lead, it feels a lot better when you don’t have to go to overtime or get the shootout win. Everybody has that feeling of success.”

In last Thursday’s 3-2 win, Pittsburgh managed to hold Atlanta to five shots in the third, even as the Thrashers were coming hard with their defense. The Penguins’ commitment culminated with winger Max Talbot falling face-first in the final seconds to block a blast by Dustin Byfuglien.

“On the last play of the game, you know they’re going to try to give it to the [player with the] big shot, and I was ready for it,” Talbot said. “I was trying to go on my side, lay on the ice and cover the most [ice] possible, but I fell down face-first. I blocked the shot, so that’s what matters. These are the things that you have to do to win some games.”

For head coach Dan Bylsma, it’s about playing smarter defensively with the lead.

“It really has a lot to do with the decisions and the percentages with which we’re playing, and how we make our reads,” he said. “When you’re a team protecting a lead and you have a puck coming around the wall, and you have our defense making better decisions away from the puck, that’s allowed us to be a sounder, better defensive team.

“And a lot of that defense was in the offensive zone from our lines, but our defense was part of it, how they managed the puck and kept it down there for the forwards to go to work. That’s been a key difference for our team.”

The difference paid off against the Devils, where the Penguins had to make the most of a game without as much time as they’d like to spend in the offensive zone.

“They play us well, and tonight it seemed like a lot of neutral zone [play]; there weren’t a lot of opportunities,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “When we play them, we don’t want to accept the fact that that’s the way the game’s going to be; we want to make sure we’re forcing them to make mistakes and we’re playing our game. But, at the same time, they’re good at what they do, and we’ve got to make sure we capitalize.”

Coming off a rocky start to the season, the Penguins know it’s important to avoid getting complacent with their current success. That doesn’t appear to be a problem with this group, though, as they continue to evaluate their game, practice hard and work to maintain their discipline and focus.

“We know we’ve still got to improve things in our game,” said winger Pascal Dupuis. “We’re working on it; we’re watching a lot of videos. You can’t get too comfortable out there.”

That hard work at practice, said winger Arron Asham, has been key in helping both forwards and defensemen gain a better understanding of how Pittsburgh wants to play.

“We’re not curling in the defensive zone,” he said. “We’re stopping, we know our positions and we know what we’re supposed to do. We’ve been going over it in practice a lot and it seems like it’s been sticking in our heads. We’re not in the defensive zone too much and, when we are, we’re not giving the teams a whole lot of chances.

“We’re just going to keep this thing going as long as we can.”

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