As any hockey fan could see, the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ two victories this week haven’t lacked for flashy highlights.
Evgeni Malkin circles the entire offensive zone before setting up a goal! Marc-Andre Fleury stretches out for a lightning-quick blocker save! Sidney Crosby caps a brilliant flurry of passes with a perfect one-timer! James Neal whips a trademark wrister into the top corner of the net!
All that eye candy has been captivating, but those individual flourishes belie the real reason Pittsburgh has been able to maintain the Metropolitan Division lead: steady team defending.
Yes, while the Penguins’ impressive array of weaponry has failed to produce more than three non-empty net goals in 18 of 22 games, they’ve limited the opposition to fewer than three on their goaltender 19 times.
That brand of stinginess has kept Pittsburgh in essentially every game this season, even when the offense hasn’t been producing at its league-leading pace of the past two years. The Penguins aren’t a low-scoring team – their 2.52 goals per 60 minute rate puts them at 12th of 30 teams – but they have been unable to gun their way out of trouble thus far.
Maybe that’s a good thing. As we saw in the Eastern Conference final against Boston last spring, the Penguins weren’t very comfortable grinding out low-scoring wins after a pair of free-wheeling series victories over the Islanders and Senators.
Through a quarter of this season, Pittsburgh has compiled a 14-8 record more on the strength of its ninth-ranked defense (1.86 goals against per 60) and 12th-ranked goaltending (92.6 save percentage) than its attack.
For all of their newfound defensive prowess, the Penguins are consistent Stanley Cup contenders because of their deep roster of scorers and playmakers. Although they have discovered a different way to win, Dan Bylsma‘s bunch needs to be aggressive enough to optimize their dangerous lineup.
Still, it’s good to have a Plan B. There are 60 games to go before the Penguins can seek playoff redemption, but their early results show a more versatile group than recent editions.