Jan 28, 2021; Boston, MA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Cody Ceci (4) celebrates after scoring against the Boston Bruins during the first period at the TD Garden. Credit: Brian Fluharty

Simplicity Proves Key to Penguins’ Success

The Pittsburgh Penguins won in Boston Thursday for the first time since Nov. 24, 2014, and they did it by out-Bruining the Bruins, allowing just two shots in the first period, getting on the board first and never really letting the home team back into the game.

It was another defensive clinic from the team that was tied for the third fewest goals-against (29) for the month of March, and ran away with the best goals-against/games played (1.81) for the month. Yes, those very same Penguins. The ones known mostly for offense and skill, not just during the Crosby-Malkin era, but since the Lemieux-Jagr one.

With names like Evgeni Malkin, Jason Zucker, Brandon Tanev, Kasperi Kapanen, Teddy Blueger and goalie Tristan Jarry on the shelf at various points over the past month, a simpler, defense-first style of hockey has been a necessity. And the roster, sprinkled with AHL fill-ins, has bought in because it’s been effective – and fun.

It’s been fun because, along with being the class of the league in terms of preventing goals, only two teams had more goals-for/games played than the Penguins in March. As it turns out, tenacious defense also creates lots of turnovers and opportunities on the other side of the puck.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said forward Zach Aston-Reese. “The boys are playing really good hockey right now. We’re playing defense first, and it’s all the clichés you talk about – defending hard, playing in front of your net, blocking shots and things like that. But we’re doing all the little clichés and that’s what’s making it fun, because it’s leading to offense for us, and generating scoring chances off of our defense.”

“This team is playing hard right now,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “The players are competing, they’re playing hard for one another, and they’re paying attention to the details. We’ve talked a lot over the last few weeks about how to get consistent results, and it starts with a compete level, and then it’s attention to detail on top of that. And when you have those two things, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win on most nights.”

The 25-point March of the Penguins put them within a couple of points of the East Division lead. It came largely on the backs of a consistently excellent first line, with Sidney Crosby (7G, 14A), Jake Guentzel (7G, 10A) and Bryan Rust (8G, 5A) leading the way, but also through other players elevating their games. Like Jared McCann (5G, 5A) playing possibly the best stretch of hockey of his career, Evan Rodrigues (3G, 3A) stepping up his offense, and blueliner Mike Matheson (1G, 3A) showing flashes of the talent for which the Penguins acquired him, despite struggling at times on the defensive side of the puck.

The month also saw the team showcase some organizational depth. Solid contributors like Anthony Angello, who picked up three of his four points this season over his last five games, and Frederick Gaudreau, who scored four points in nine games and ranks third among Penguins forwards in shorthanded time-on-ice per game, couldn’t make the cut as the team started to get healthier; both headed back to the taxi squad Sunday.

Getting back to that impressive goals-against for the month, the Penguins, who reportedly inquired about a veteran goalie just a couple of months ago, are likely pretty happy with their tandem right now. Jarry went 8-2-1 in March, with a .928 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average, but it was backup Casey DeSmith whose starts were even more dominant. He went 4-1, with a .969 save percentage, .089 goals-against and two shutouts, and gave the Penguins a measure of confidence when Jarry sat out for a couple of games.

All of that impressive work may have come crashing to a halt in a single period Saturday, when the Penguins allowed five goals in the second and lost to the Bruins, 7-5, but that felt like an anomaly for a team that’s shown over the past month that it has the potential to be special this season. If it continues to stick with the basics.

“I do think that sometimes, when you go through some adversities from an injury standpoint, it may heighten the awareness and the importance and the necessary commitment to team defense and overall defense,” Sullivan said. “And we’ve defined defense a lot of different ways. It starts with the decision-making when you have the puck, but it also takes place 150-160 feet from your net. We’ve talked about that a lot as a group.”

Now, as Tanev, Zucker and Jarry have returned and the roster continues to get healthier, the Penguins run the risk of doing something they’ve done before in these situations – getting away from what’s worked and relying on talent to carry them.

“I’m probably stating the obvious when I say that when we’re completely healthy, we have some gamebreakers from a talent standpoint, and we certainly want to allow them the latitude to make players,” Sullivan said. “That’s what separates them from others, and this coaching staff believes in not taking the stick out of their hands.

“But when this group has had success, even when healthy, there is an element of simplicity that’s associated with our game. And that, in my mind, is when our team is at its very best.”