By Matt Popchock
The Minnesota Wild have the Penguins’ number, at least when it comes to playing them in Pittsburgh, and even that might be a mild understatement.
I can still vividly recall being unlucky enough to muddle through a miserable snowstorm to see a game at Mellon Arena against Minnesota during Sid’s rookie year, and it was, quite possibly, the most humiliating game I have ever attended. That was five years ago (feels more like 15). But I digress.
This past Saturday, in a new barn but with a similar result, the visiting Wild embarrassed a much more proven Pens team. Why has nothing changed? Why can’t a Stanley Cup contender, even without its franchise player, have an easier time with a middle-of-the-road Western Conference opponent? Because that opponent plays New Jersey Devils hockey better than the actual New Jersey Devils.
Having Jose Theodore, a former league MVP, in goal, and Todd Richards, a coach who worked with his counterpart and several of the current Penguins didn’t hurt either, but somehow I don’t think that was the Penguins’ biggest concern.
Even after an epic winning streak and impressive victories later over Southeast Division hopefuls Washington and Tampa Bay vaulted the Pens to the top of the Eastern Conference heap, conservative-minded teams that play a neutral zone trap continue to be a bugaboo for them.
It was the same system the aforementioned Devils played and have been playing for generations, which allowed them to go 6-for-6 against the Penguins during the regular campaign last year en route to an Atlantic Division title. It was the same system that allowed the Montreal Canadiens, Jaroslav Halak’s play in net not withstanding, to bring the Pens’ Cup defense to a surprisingly early end.
It was the same system that allowed a bad, banged-up Islanders team to end Crosby’s 25-game point streak and take two points for themselves from the visiting Penguins prior to the Winter Classic, and it was the same system that allowed the Washington Capitals to keep alive the trend of road teams winning the Classic with an ugly but well-coached victory at Heinz Field.
Jacques Lemaire, eat your heart out.
Granted, the Caps didn’t necessarily play Lemaire’s exact system, but the chief concept remained the same. As the previously soaring Pens have come back to Earth a bit, other teams have been settling down in front of their goaltender and taking away the middle of the ice, forcing their attackers wide and making them make more low-percentage plays than high. Naturally, this becomes even more effective when all the Penguins’ scoring depth seems to come from the center position, and the best pivot in the world is out with a concussion, leaving the offense in the hands of less consistent supporting cast members.
There are a lot of adjectives that can be used to describe the Penguins on their best day. “Talented,” “compelling,” “amazing,” words of that ilk. “Simple,” however, is typically not one of them. That needs to change in order to keep the Pens honest without Crosby and, potentially, to avoid another Canadiens-esque episode come spring. This team, which earns its keep as a creative bunch that relies on raw skill, needs to take off the dance shoes and put on work boots in order to beat the system.
Dan Bylsma made such points, though not in so many words, in his post-game presser Saturday night. Clearly he knows what the issue is, but why does it seem like the Penguins are never entirely ready to play against teams that play the trap?
It’s easy to blame Bylsma and his staff, just as it is to blame any person or persons in his position when your team gets humbled the way it did Saturday, and when they’ve lost five of their last seven, managing only one goal in four of those defeats. To a certain extent a coach should shoulder the blame when his team fails against the same system on multiple occasions, while looking like it has not yet learned its lesson. But I can’t pin these setbacks entirely on a man who led a previously 10th-place group of Penguins to a championship and has gotten his teams to play better than .600 hockey under his watch.
Bylsma made his NHL debut with the Los Angeles Kings during the 1995-96 season and spent bits and pieces of four more seasons with the Kings better getting picked up by the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the organization with which he retired from playing just one year after being a part of that team’s improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2003, which ended in a Game 7 loss to the Devils (fitting for our purposes, isn’t it?). He spent the meat of his playing career right in the middle of what I, among others, like to refer to as the “dead puck” era in the NHL.
Therefore, Bylsma is no stranger to the neutral zone trap, or any variation thereof. If anything, he probably had to play against that system on an almost nightly basis, so what the Minnesota Wild did Saturday, and what other opponents have done recently, is not Greek to him or his staff. He delivered the right message after Saturday’s loss, and it’s up to the players to heed it and commit to it.
It’s four simple words: move your friggin’ feet.
The Penguins need to avoid Harlem Globetrotter syndrome while Crosby rests his injured noggin and take heart to what Bylsma said about simplifying their game. It’s probably the only way the Pens can win until they’re healthy again, because it’s a copycat league, and there’s no reason to think the Boston Bruins won’t play a 1-3-1, or a 1-4, or what-have-you when they visit the Consol Energy Center tonight, now that there’s precedent for success against this team.
This means moving the puck into the offensive zone more tactfully, which, in turn, means not playing their usual pass-happy game, but instead dumping the puck deep and chasing it. It means outworking the other team’s defensemen to said puck, which breaks up the trap by making them go to you and outwork you. It means establishing your forecheck with two sharpshooters up high, and planting the rest in front of the net for rebounds. It means the rest of the Penguins doing what their third and fourth lines have been so good at, even at times on Saturday: ratcheting up the energy one extra notch, getting more pucks to the net, and paying a physical price for better results.
Translation: break out those blue collars, boys…and I don’t mean the ones on your alternate jerseys.
It won’t be easy in two upcoming contests against the strong and smart Bruins, especially with netminder Tim Thomas playing world-class hockey this season, nor will it be easy in the rematch with Montreal, one of the teams that has frustrated the Pens’ offense with the help of Carey Price, who is, to quote Judge Smails, no slouch himself when facing Pittsburgh. But in all likelihood, it’s what has to be done for the Penguins to get out of their current skid.
To an intelligent hockey fan and/or an intelligent hockey player these concepts are not brain surgery, but for some reason, on Saturday, the Pens made it seem that way. A wise man once said, work smart, not hard, though frankly, working smart and hard is a formula that has even helped the Pens win plenty of games with Crosby. So why get away from it without him?
And you wonder why Bylsma says “we need to get to our game” so often…
For more news and views on the Penguins, be sure to check out “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan, and the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog at 937thefan.com!