Just as no game between the Penguins and the Ottawa Senators can start before two national anthems are performed, no Dan Bylsma news conference can start unless the Penguins coach lists two topics that are "not discussion points."
O'er the land of the free
We stand on guard for thee
This is fine as far as it goes; there's nothing that compels Bylsma to describe the prognosis for anyone's upper-, lower-, or mid-body injury (lacerated navel), and nothing that requires him to reveal deep background secrets such as who might skate alongside Tyler Kennedy. The problem is it doesn't go far enough. There are plenty of things the coach won't talk about, so I don't know why he keeps chopping the list to two.
Why not injuries, lineups, and Palestinian self-determination?
Why not injuries, lineups, and International Monetary Fund policy?
Why not injuries, lineups, and whether that 103-pound cod a German fisherman hauled in the other day will stand as a world record once the International Game Fish Association certifiers get their mitts on it.
Don't even start, because we're not talking about that, OK?
Fortunately, I had a question about the Penguins' defense as this Eastern Conference semifinal series swims somewhat sluggishly toward Game 2 Friday night, because I was wondering if Penguins blueliners spent so much time chasing swift New York Islanders in the previous series that they might have developed six games worth of perhaps dangerous tendencies or wounded confidences.
"I think we did reset, in some aspects, just some adjustments to our team and how we wanted to play," Bylsma said after a short optional skate for which a good number of Penguins opted out. "I think there were situations where we wanted to make sure we have a good gap and our [defensemen] are playing a tight game. A lot of times [in Game 1] we were able to do that.
"A lot of it was just our F3 [third forward] in the offensive zone; when he's in good position, it allows our D to establish a gap early, and we did a pretty good job of that against a speed-and-skill team, especially their top two lines. I thought our D were able to do a very good job of that for most of the night."
The Senators might well have the skill of the Islanders, who tormented Penguins defenders for the majority of the first-round series, but they do not have the same blur-for-blur speed.
What they do have that the Islanders didn't are two 72-hour gaps between national anthems they can use to decipher precisely what Bylsma's drawing defensively and how to exploit it.
"We haven't changed anything systematically," said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who worked 23 shifts in Game 1, all but one at even strength. "We're just having to focus on doing what we do well better, on not giving their skill guys, or anyone else, a lot of space, [and] on making their skill guys do things quicker than they want to."
That focus always hasn't been there in the first seven playoff games. Penguins defensemen helped both goaltenders throw shutouts in the first round, but they opened plenty of shooting lanes and too often failed to keep the crease clear.
Curiously, they more than made up for it on the score sheet. Fully 24 percent of the Penguins' goals in the opening series came from defensemen, as did the first of four in Game 1 Tuesday night, courtesy of Paul Martin.
It was Martin, no one should forget, who rubbed out the Islanders; third lead of the decisive Game 6, beating Evgeni Nabokov with fewer than six minutes left in regulation. It was Brooks Orpik, the alpha dog on this defense, who won the game and series in overtime with his first playoff goal.
"That [the Martin goal] is a big moment in the postseason," Niskanen said. "In that game, that's tough to do, come back three times. Geno [Evgeni Malkin] gives him a great pass, but that's one of things that's helped Pauly this year; he's been more aggressive shooting the puck."
Martin and Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang each had six points in the first round, while Letang and defenseman Douglas Murray each had two goals.
In the playoffs to date, the Penguins are 5-0 when a defenseman gets a goal, 0-2 when the goals go only to the forwards.
You would not think that a team as blessed with the talent up front as these Penguins are would be counting on blue-line contributions to the score sheet, just as you would not think that the Penguins would struggle mightily with the Islanders after skunking them, 5-0, in Game 1, just as you might not think the Ottawa Senators will raise much of a fuss in this second round.
It says here they will.
Not even Bylsma would say that's not a discussion point.
Gene Collier: email@example.com. First Published May 16, 2013 4:45 AM