April 1st, 2021; Boston; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin (8) attempts a shot in front of Boston Bruins center Trent Frederic (11) during a NHL game at the TD Garden. Credit: Brian Fluharty

Penguins Showcase Defensive Mindset in 1-0 Bruins Shutout

There’s something different about the Pittsburgh Penguins this season – an intangible that’s making a tangible difference in their outcomes.

Whether you call it buying into a team concept, commitment to defense or simply professionalism, it’s been a big part of what’s made the Penguins the NHL’s second-best team in points earned since the start of March, just one shy of the Vegas Golden Knights. With 3.76 goals scored in 29 games, they’re the league’s second highest-scoring team during that time. Perhaps even more impressive when you consider that these are the Penguins, though, with just 2.38 goals allowed per game, they’re also the sixth stingiest team.

It also has them sitting pretty at the top of the MassMutual East Division with 67 points, one ahead of the Washington Capitals and four ahead of the New York Islanders, though both of those teams have one game in hand.

The Penguins’ overall commitment has been so impressive that a stray into old-school Penguins territory on Tuesday was downright shocking. The Penguins, taking a 6-0 lead over the New Jersey Devils into the third period, were lucky to scrape out a 7-6 win. They made history as the first NHL team to ever be outscored by five or more goals in the third period and still emerge with the victory.

They made poor decisions with the puck, many of which were seemingly driven by padding their lead and individual stats over buckling down and preserving the win. Even goalie Tristan Jarry was guilty of that, trying for an empty-netter that instead ended up in his net and cut the Penguins’ lead to a single goal.

“I’ve never been through an experience like that, so it’s not an easy one to react to,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I’m not sure I have a valid answer for you. We’ve got to be a whole lot better in a lot of areas to close out games and not put ourselves in those types of positions. It’s something I’m going to try to digest and see what we can take from it.

“I’m glad we won. These are important points. I thought we had a great start; there was a lot to like about it. We didn’t play well in the third. And we can talk forever about why or what went wrong, but the reality is we know we can’t do that moving forward. My hope is that that’s an outlier, and hopefully we all learn from it and make sure that we’re diligent moving forward.”

Based on the Penguins’ response, their coach – and their fans – should have a lot to feel good about as they continue their march toward the playoffs.

Pittsburgh followed up Tuesday’s near-debacle with workmanlike wins over the Devils – Thursday, Sullivan went back to Jarry in a show of confidence in the netminder the Penguins chose as their No. 1 over the offseason and was rewarded with a sharp performance in Pittsburgh’s 5-1 win, while a 4-2 victory Saturday featured both captain Sidney Crosby and linemate Bryan Rust reaching the 20-goal mark.

“I think it’s just a matter of [Tuesday] happened, it’s over and moving on as quick as you can,” Jarry said. “It’s a shortened season, we play a lot of games and they’re very tight together, so it’s a matter of moving on as quick as you can, just being prepared for the next game.”

And if anyone needed further convincing about this Penguins team, Sunday’s 1-0 shutout of the Boston Bruins might have been the best evidence yet that they’ve learned from recent history. Their past couple of highly disappointing, early playoff exits, to be exact.

In a game that featured a distinct playoff intensity and atmosphere at PPG Paints Arena, the Penguins battled it out with the Bruins, focusing on limiting chances against and taking advantage of opportunities when the game presented them. It took 4:03 into the third period for one of those opportunities to find its way behind 22-year-old netminder Jeremy Swayman, but Pittsburgh finally broke through, with Crosby feeding a pass to Jake Guentzel for a one-timer.

It was the game’s only goal, and it was a great test for the fast-approaching postseason, where Boston looms as a potential first-round matchup.

“I don’t think there was a ton of scoring chances on either side, and that’s just an indication of how hard both teams were trying to defend,” Sullivan said. “It without a doubt had a little bit of a playoff feel from that regard. I think it’s good for our team to get into these types of games.

“We’ve got to find a comfort level in playing in a one-goal, low-scoring game, because that’s the nature of high-stakes environment hockey, and that’s the way it’s going to be when you play a top team like Boston. They’re as good a defensive team as there is in the league. We knew we were going to have to fight for every inch out there; we want to try to force them to do the same.”

The players saw the 1-0 result as validation of their defensive commitment.

“This was a great benchmark game for us, especially defensively, of how we have to play and how hard we have to work without the puck,” said defenseman Brian Dumoulin. “We saw that we still create chances; I think we had a lot of two-on-ones in the third period. It was really a quality game from us, especially defensively, and we’re probably going to expect a lot of that as the season goes on here headed into the playoffs.”

“We defended hard; we know what kind of offense they have and some of the gifted players they have,” Guentzel said. “I think our mindset is we’ve got to defend hard and the offense will come.”

That mindset is one that’s been preached for quite a while now by their head coach. This year, his players seem to have internalized it – and if they can keep that going, the Penguins will be as legitimate a Stanley Cup contender as any team in the NHL.

“I think this year [the difference is] just how much we’ve gotten on the same page as a team, how much we’ve come together and how we’re working for each other with and without the puck,” Dumoulin said.

“He’s done a really good job of giving us our game plan and giving us the ideas of what we need to do as a team to win, to compete every night and give ourselves a chance to win. If we do get away from that he’s really honest with us, and sometimes you need that honesty. That’s why we haven’t slipped too much. Obviously we need to continue that and hold each other accountable, and it starts with Sully.”