“We’re not going to score our way to a championship. We have to make sure we become more difficult to play against. We have to defend.”
On the list of Mike Sullivan’s commandments, that one’s at the very top.
It’s what the Penguins hear from their head coach most often.
Game 1 against the Flyers suggested Sullivan’s players have once again gotten the message.
The Pens needed Scott Laughton to whiff on an open net and then a subsequent miraculous save by Matt Murray on Laughton’s re-try in the first period to eventually complete the shutout part of their 7-0 drubbing of Philadelphia.
But for the most part, Murray wasn’t overly taxed or threatened.
He was asked, much more often than not, to make saves one at a time on shots he could see coming.
He was good in the crease.
The Penguins were even better at team defense.
“That was as good a commitment to playing defense as we’ve had,” Sullivan assessed.
He sounded like he was bragging, like a proud parent.
The Pens’ commitment to playing defense included the forecheck, which bottled Philadelphia up and turned the Flyers over at times.
It included keeping the feet moving and applying back-pressure when necessary (Claude Giroux might want to take a few notes on that, or at least notice).
It included battling in front of Murray’s net to keep the slot area as clean as possible.
And it included blocking shots (24 of those).
The Penguins did all the dirty work and they still ended up scoring seven goals.
They didn’t need to trade chances with the Flyers or take a bunch of unnecessary risks to do it, either.
As the last two postseasons have confirmed, that’s a winning formula for the Pens.
But their play this season, even during what became a much more representative second half, suggested the Penguins might no longer be as interested in committing to defense the way they had in previous springs, that they were for some reason suddenly interpreting Sullivan’s First Commandment as optional rather than the edict it’s always been.
It was either that, or that Ian Cole was the only guy on the team capable of insulating the house and blocking shots.
Game 1 against the Flyers suffocated both of those narratives.
The highlight-reel stuff from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin was indeed spectacular.
So was Murray’s save on Laughton, even though there was no excuse for Laughton not burying his first attempt.
That’s what brought the house down at PPG Paints Arena and, in Crosby’s case, the hats down from the rafters.
But it’s the commitment to and the effort on defense the Penguins suddenly and convincingly displayed in Game 1 against Philadelphia that will prove much more sustainable in these playoffs.
Crosby isn’t always going to be able to manufacture a hat trick.
Malkin won’t always be free to roll like a freight train into the offensive zone unopposed.
And the other guy won’t always whiff on the yawning cage.
That’s when playing the right way, as Sullivan defines it, will become all the more imperative.
Game 1 against the Flyers confirmed the Pens still understand as much, that the “swagger” in their game Carl Hagelin has referenced repeatedly this week hasn’t yet invited overconfidence or the temptation to seek shortcuts.
And that’s what really made Game 1 against the Flyers so encouraging.
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