There’s a reason that one of the NHL’s most prevalent phrases is “puck management.”
The speed and skill in the league is such that, if a player or team is careless with the puck, the opposition can generate a scoring chance in a matter of seconds.
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma recently said the most effective method of defending is being smart while possessing the puck, a theme he’s focused on since his arrival in Pittsburgh five years ago.
That makes intuitive sense, but with essentially every other team trying to do the same, it’s not particularly easy. High-end talent helps, as does a team-wide mentality to protect the puck in all three zones.
Although Bylsma is known as a believer in positive reinforcement, there was a perfect example of what not to do with the puck during the Penguins’ game in Dallas last Saturday. (Once again, all images below are property of the NHL.)
With the Stars leading 2-0 midway through the second period, a neutral-zone turnover by the Penguins directly results in Rich Peverley‘s goal from the right wing, putting Pittsburgh in a deep hole:
Going back to the start of the play, the Penguins appear to be in good shape, as defenseman Paul Martin wins a puck battle with Dallas’ Alex Chiasson along the corner boards in the Pittsburgh zone. Like a center should, Evgeni Malkin curls in deep to pick up the loose disc and turns up ice.
As you can see in the frame above, Jussi Jokinen is providing puck support just to Malkin’s left, while James Neal stretches the play toward the Pittsburgh blue line. In short, the Pens are in fine shape for a rush.
In this snapshot, we see Malkin has elected to keep the puck as the Penguins’ forwards enter the neutral zone. That’s acceptable, especially because No. 71 is one of the most dynamic athletes in the sport. I’d rather have the puck on his stick than almost anyone else on the planet. The eventual goal scorer Peverley is applying back-pressure here, while Stars center Shawn Horcoff approaches from Malkin’s left.
Here’s where it all goes wrong. Malkin tries to beat Horcoff one-on-one, and he gets sandwiched at the red line. While Neal is covered on the right side by defenseman Jordie Benn, Jokinen awaits a pass at center circle. Looking to make an above-average play is tolerable in the offensive zone, but it can quickly lead to consequences in the other two-thirds of the ice.
Trouble. All three Penguins forwards are now behind the play, trying to turn around quickly. Meanwhile, Horcoff is ready to scoop up the puck in front of the benches and zoom back into the Pittsburgh end. With Chiasson (not pictured) hiding out near the Penguins blue line, the Stars suddenly have a 3-on-2 advantage.
You see Neal working hard on the backcheck, but Dallas is about to make something happen. Peverley is calling for the puck on the right side, as he notices Brooks Orpik a little too far away to cut him off.
Now Peverley has the puck in shooting position, roaring toward the right circle. Orpik appears as if he’s within stick length, but Peverley has a little too much speed because of his rolling start through neutral ice, and he decides to fire quickly. We know how this ends.
The shot is about halfway to Marc-Andre Fleury in this final frame. The Pens goalie hasn’t reacted yet, perhaps because he anticipated Orpik to get a piece of the puck. He did not.
Orpik and Fleury aren’t free from blame on the goal, but the ever-hazardous neutral-zone turnover by Malkin set the wheels in motion.
Hockey’s a fast game, and it can pass you by if you’re not careful.
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