With the Penguins’ collection of talented forwards, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the club boasts one of the league’s deepest defensive corps, both at the NHL level and in its developmental system.
In the first two games of the 2013-14 season, however, Pittsburgh’s defense has made the difference – both in terms of its blueliners and as a team – as the Penguins beat two clubs that have given them fits in recent years, shutting out the New Jersey Devils, 3-0, and defeating the Buffalo Sabres, 4-1.
“There are still things we can get better at but I think, when we put our mind to playing in their end, you see we can keep them in there for long stretches,” said defensive-minded forward Craig Adams. “And, obviously, that’s a good place to play.”
Pittsburgh’s third- and fourth-line forwards are chipping in goals, too, with Adams and newly signed Chuck Kobasew scoring in each of the first two games. The Penguins’ top-line center, captain Sidney Crosby, has also scored in both. He pointed to Pittsburgh’s frustration against teams that effectively clogged the neutral zone last season – including the Boston Bruins, who swept them out of the Eastern Conference Finals – as a motivating factor in how the team is trying to play this year.
“Our D were really aggressive,” Crosby said. “It seemed like their gap was good, they had a lot of sticks on pucks and made it tough coming through the neutral zone. When you do that, it’s hard to get a lot of offense created. It’s frustrating, and we’ve been on the other side of that before, too, so it’s nice to see that we’re able to clog the neutral zone up a little bit more. It’s something we’ll try to continue to do.
“I think we’re pretty good as far as our structure defensively,” Crosby added. “That’s usually something that takes a little bit more time, but I think we’ve looked pretty comfortable with the way we need to play defensively. I think as a group, from Flower [goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury] on out, we’ve been really solid.”
The team’s commitment to defensive play has meant Fleury has had to face fewer quality chances, but he’s looked comfortable and confident when called upon. He earned his 250th career win with a 28-save shutout against the Devils, including stopping a flurry of close calls and a penalty shot in the game’s waning minutes, and turned aside all but one of the Sabres’ 21 shots.
“I think [defense] is something that we keep working on and, since last year, I think our focus has been there a lot more,” Fleury said. “Today, they didn’t really get too much. It’s not always in the defensive zone, too; we had the puck and controlled the game.”
With his teammates forcing turnovers, cutting off passing lanes and keeping shots to the outside, “it makes my job a little easier,” Fleury said. “It’s quiet though, sometimes; you’ve got to [mentally] stay in the game. But it’s nice to see them play that well.”
The shift in the Penguins’ style of play might result in a slightly less exciting brand of hockey. But, so far, it’s getting the job done.
“Obviously we’re happy with the two wins but, so far, I don’t know if it’s the most exciting hockey fans have ever seen,” Adams said. “Sort of a slower pace, more methodical, but I thought we did a good job of staying pretty patient. We didn’t open up the game too much, stuck with it and didn’t give them too much.”
“I think that’s something that’s probably a little more ingrained in us, coming into this year after last year,” Crosby said. “It’s something we’re really focused on.”
And the Penguins have capitalized on the opportunity to earn their first four points at home, with the chance to add two more against Carolina Tuesday before heading on the road for the first time this season.
“We’ve faced two teams that want to get back into [the playoffs],” Fleury said. “And, in past years, I don’t think we’ve had too much success right away at home. Definitely nice to start on a good note. It’s early in the season and the team’s playing very good.”