Predictably, beleaguered goalie Marc-Andre Fleury received the headlines after he recorded his 24th career shutout and 250th NHL victory in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-0 defeat of the New Jersey Devils in Thursday night’s season-opener.
But no offense to the Flower, but a storyline just as interesting as the Penguins’ franchise netminder starting the season encouragingly is how the Penguins went about their business as a team.
As you’ve likely heard by now, the Penguins added to their coaching staff in an unexpected way this summer, bringing longtime former NHL head coach Jacques Martin aboard as an assistant. At first glance, the fit seemed less than optimal, what with Dan Bylsma’s up-tempo, push-the-pace system clashing against Martin’s well-known preference for defensive focus.
Although it still seems odd Martin would join the Penguins in a subordinate role, the stylistic mash-up may work out quite well for a team that has been accused of occasionally shirking its defensive duties over the past few years.
Thursday night’s performance at Consol Energy Center wasn’t particularly polished – Game No. 1 of 82 rarely is – but the Penguins noticeably had more players on the defensive side of the puck than observers of the team are used to seeing. The difference was most evident in the neutral zone, where Pittsburgh’s forecheck had some similarities to *gasp* the classic trap.
The Pens have had great success in the regular season during Bylsma’s entire five-year tenure, but they’ve had some curious lapses in protecting their own goal in key moments. Part of that is on Fleury, but it’s telling that the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick posted his best numbers when Michel Therrien was his coach.
Therrien, much like Martin, is a coach who preaches a defense-first, counterattack approach. The Penguins parlayed that structural baseline into a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 – before Therrien’s abrasive personality forced general manager Ray Shero to make a coaching change the following winter. Bringing on Bylsma immediately paid off in a championship, but the Pens have never been as defensively responsible since.
To be clear, the Penguins haven’t become the 1996 Florida Panthers. Chuck Kobasew’s goal that opened the scoring Thursday night was classic Bylsma – a stretch pass with a hook-and-ladder wrinkle that caught the Devils on their heels. Considering the offensive talent on its roster, Pittsburgh would be foolish to abandon the high-octane mindset that has made them so consistently dangerous.
However, the presence of Martin could give the Penguins a feasible Plan B to employ when the “Bylsmagic” isn’t fooling anyone. The six-month regular season should give the flightless fowl enough time to get comfortable shifting gears, but the first game of 82 brought encouraging results.