Gene Collier: Defense shows up at an important time

Yielding just 24 shots helps Penguins' cause in overtime victory

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General agreement among the Penguins and their more devoted students was achieved Saturday on at least this: It was very fortunate that the hockey team chose this particular square on the calendar to finally play some serious defense.

When you give the puck away 10 times on the same afternoon, as Dan Bylsma's team did Saturday, you had better be prepared to retreat fast and bull thy necks.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, by contrast, had only four giveaways, not including, of course, the hockey game.

Oh yeah, they gave it away.

First when Tyler Johnson's ridiculous breakout pass went straight to the stick of Jussi Jokinen, who fed it quickly to Evgeni Malkin near the goal cage on the play that put the Penguins up by a goal with only 3:17 to play. Then, after the brilliant Tampa Bay rookie Ondrej Palat flew past four flightless Penguins to tie it again less than two minutes later, Tampa Bay got itself whistled for putting too great a discharge of atmospheric electricity into an enclosed environment, or as committed by anyone else, too many men on the ice.

That was in overtime, and if you don't know how long it took James Neal to end this one after the Bolts failed to count to four correctly, well, it was 16 seconds.

So if Penguins 4, Lightning 3 in overtime seemed a bit chaotic toward its climax, the more enduring quality of the Penguins' 46th victory had better be that the Penguins finally held somebody to fewer than 30 shots.

It had been nearly three weeks since that happened around here. Three weeks in which the San Jose Sharks fired 47, Philadelphia whipped 75 in little more than 24 hours, and everyone else averaged 32 shots per game.

No wonder backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff was looking for some relief Saturday.

"I thought we were great all game," Zatkoff said after facing only 24 shots. "They were opportunistic tonight [Reminder: For linguistic purposes, all hockey games are played at night, including ones that start at 1 p.m. Don't ask.] and they've got some good players on their team so they don't need much room. We kept them to the outside and blocked a lot of shots. We were able to keep them out of our zone for the most part to kind of kill any momentum that they had.

"We had a couple breakdowns. We would have liked to have finished it off, 3-2, but we'll watch on video and get better at it."

They shouldn't have to study much video to figure out how four Penguins in the defensive zone ought to be able to handle one attacker, but Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Matt Niskanen and especially Olli Maatta should probably take a peak at it anyway.

Palat's shocking incursion past those four in the game's final 90 seconds earned Tampa Bay a point in the standings, no small thing when you consider the Bolts now have the third-most points in the Eastern Conference.

"He's coming with so much speed, there's not much defenders are going to do when a guy's flyin' all the way from his zone," Zatkoff said, refusing to blame anyone in the room except perhaps himself. "I knew I did have enough momentum to beat him to the back post. I tried to poke him and I think I threw it a little too early.

"Not think. I did throw it a little too early, and he was able to just chip it up over my shoulder when my stick went down."

The Bolts sent the few decent scoring opportunities they had to the back of the net, but the Penguins were in a refreshingly consistent defensive posture right from puck drop. Tampa Bay had only eight shots in the first period, and only 10 with 4:22 to play in the second. Shots were blocked by Marcel Goc, Simon Despres, Brooks Orpik, Robert Bortuzzo and Niskanen, and Tanner Glass blocked two, the second by throwing himself onto the pond in front of an Eric Brewer blast from the left point with five minutes remaining in a 2-2 game.

"I don't know if you look up at the end of the game and say, you know, 24 or 26 or 30 is the right number, but 'scoring chances against' is something we do look at and I think the number is going to be under the 12 we prescribe," Bylsma said. "Against a dangerous power play, a power play that shoots a lot of pucks, a team that shoots a lot of pucks, playing a 0-0 game and 1-1 for a long time that shows patience. We played a good game.

"We really take notice when shots against are under 20, but 24 or less is a pretty good number."

The other pretty good number that emerged from Saturday was three, the number of penalties the Penguins committed after that big stupid seven Thursday night in Detroit.

That and a full bore return to lethality by their league-leading power play put the Penguins in line for a four-point weekend.

But watch those 1-on-4's, OK?

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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