The Pittsburgh Penguins are currently in a rut. While the standings may show otherwise with the team leading the division and second in the Eastern Conference, the team's recent performance has mirrored last April.
To correct the issues from last season, one that concluded with 26 goals allowed in six games against the Flyers, Dan Bylsma preached a more defensive-minded game. His system would stay relatively the same, but the attention to detail and discipline needed to be ramped up, especially in the defensive zone.
Through their first 15 games, the Penguins looked to have corrected their defensive lapses, save for a few excruciating home losses to Toronto and Long Island. In their first 15 games, the Penguins surrendered just 35 goals while scoring 48, good enough for second in the Eastern Conference.
Then something happened. It's tough to put a finger on what exactly caused the shift and why, but the Penguins started getting back to their run and gun ways from last season.
It started in Buffalo, where the Penguins got out to a quick 2-0 lead before having to climb out of a 3-2 deficit in the third period to win. The offense was explosive, as usual, but the defense gave up way too many scoring chances. That carried over to the Flyers' game, where the Penguins, again, got out to a 2-0 lead before allowing Philadelphia to climb back into the game. The Penguins came back, again, but this time the Flyers would walk away with the win.
Just as the late-season game against the Senators last year -in which the Penguins gave up eight goals- the Philadelphia game was met with a shrug, yielding to the idea that the Flyers were simply a desperate team trying to stay in the race.
To an extent, that's correct; however, there is no excuse to losing to a team like the Panthers less than a week later. The Penguins gave up four power play goals and Tomas Fleischmann scored the game winner on an odd-man rush. The reason for the two on one break? Kris Letang recklessly going for a puck instead of staying disciplined.
And that's really been the major problem with this team. The defensemen aren't responsible in their own zone and the team, as a whole, is taking way too many penalties. Is that a reflection on the coach? Probably not. Bylsma cant control how players use their stick to steal the puck. These are professional hockey players, they should know what causes a penalty.
Kris Letang has been mentioned as a future Norris Trophy winner for the last few seasons. He has more than enough talent to become that type of player and when he plays a controlled game, he is one of the best in the league. Lately, he's been erratic and it has negatively affected his game. It's tough to say on player on a defensive corps comprised of six people can make a huge impact on how the team plays defense, but if Letang can get back on track, so can the Penguins. He's that good.
The Penguins have given up 23 goals in their last six games. Their penalty kill is now ranked 19th in the league and their 5 on 5 goal ratio has fallen out of the top 5 to ninth. To make matters worse, Paul Martin is dealing with a lower body injury that will probably keep him out for the next couple games. Five of their next six opponents are currently in the playoffs including the Boston Bruins, and tonight's opponent, Montreal.
It's time for the Penguins to get back to defensive-minded hockey and what better place to do that than Montreal, against a team that is currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference, with an old friend behind the benches leading the way. Michel Therrien taught some of these young Penguins how to play defense in the NHL and now it's time to show him what they've learned. This team may need a top six winger or veteran defenseman for the playoffs, but to make the playoffs, they need to be a better defensive team starting right now.