“Offense can win you games, but defense can win you championships.”
It’s a time-honored sports cliche, and Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz once again referenced this tired expression in front of local media Monday morning.
Trotz is currently the longest-serving head coach in the NHL, compiling a 503-424-139 record since the Predators came into being in 1998. Still, there’s something deliciously ironic about a coach whose regular-season success far outweighs his postseason legacy playing the “defense wins titles” card. If anything, Trotz’s tenure has proven that relying on goal prevention can only get a team so far.
Of course, the Penguins demonstrated last spring that a complete disregard for defense can be just as disastrous to championship hopes. 26 goals in six games should’ve been more than enough to eliminate the Flyers, but we all know how that turned out.
The rather self-evident conclusion to draw from all of the above is that balance is key, especially in the playoffs when an opponent is likely to focus on neutralizing a particular aspect of a team’s game. However, it’s also important for a club to play to its strengths, if only to make sure every player and coach is on the same wavelength as often as possible.
The Penguins are providing a great case study to advance this discussion. They’ve scored 26 goals (not counting shootouts) during their current five-game winning streak, boosting their goals-per-game average to an NHL-best 3.65. If that sounds familiar, last season’s team scored 3.33 per outing, also tops among the league’s 30 teams.
Pittsburgh’s offense hasn’t been excessively dependent on an unsustainable shooting percentage, as their 30.7 shots per game is tied for fifth – not too far from the 33.9 average of 2011-12. The Penguins are due a little regression in their goal output if their shot totals stay stagnant, but the elite talent of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, et al should be able to largely maintain their current production level no matter how many pucks they launch.
But regardless of how the Penguins get their goals, defense is destined to be the focus of fans and media until the team makes another deep run into the postseason. The organization has acknowledged its need to tighten up, as evident in public comments from players, coaches and executives. Even the Pens’ dressing-room signage is more defensively-oriented this season.
As I mentioned last week in the latest Just A Minute video, the Penguins’ stylish brand of hockey has contributed to their significant box-office success. On the ice, Pittsburgh’s explosiveness makes it a threat to win any game or playoff series, which further increases the relative value of even a bit more defensive responsibility.
The Penguins allowed three or more goals in nine of 10 games from Feb. 17 to this past Saturday. Although they won seven of those, Saturday’s 6-1 win over the Islanders showed that they may be turning the corner in their own end. Against a team that’s 11th in the NHL in goals and ninth in shots, the Penguins allowed just 24 pucks to reach goalie Tomas Vokoun, with New York’s lone goal coming after rookie defenseman Simon Despres inexplicably fell down at his own blue line.
Pittsburgh will never inspire comparisons to the 1970s Montreal Canadiens or the 1990s New Jersey Devils, but they don’t need to be that defensively stout to succeed. When you’re lighting the lamp nearly four times per game, allowing two or three a night will do.
The Penguins will need to be sharp in all aspects during the coming week, when they play four games against playoff contenders. That gauntlet begins Tuesday night, when Pittsburgh hosts Boston, one of only two Eastern Conference clubs with fewer regulation losses than the Pens’ eight. Furthermore, the Bruins are one of the league’s most balanced teams, ranking third in goals allowed and ninth in scoring.
A trip to Toronto looms Thursday before back-to-back home matchups against the Rangers and Boston this weekend. We’ll soon find out if Sunday’s all-around excellent performance is the sign of a larger trend or simply an aberration.