Collier: Defense rests in this case

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Finding sanity by going through Philadelphia always has been a dubious game plan whether in hockey or in life, so it seemed perfectly advisable that the Penguins find a place to veer off the elimination expressway without any further misadventures.

There still isn't a lot that makes sense about this opening-round playoff series, as neither team's antics have yet to signal a formal re-entry into sanity, but, just in case we get there at some point, let's review some of the basic tenets of hockey on earth.

As Badger Bob Johnson, the Penguins' original Stanley Cup architect, used to say, "Boys remember, if you do one thing tonight, score 10 goals."

All right, maybe he didn't say that specifically, but the late Badger was full of wisdom that often didn't have to be communicated.

Until now.

The Penguins put up 10 goals in Game 4 the other night, which was surprising only because, after the first period, I thought it would take 13 to win it. It was the third consecutive time the teams have combined for at least 12, seven of which were power-play goals, more than have been scored by any of the 14 other teams in the entirety of the postseason so far.

"It's gotta be a nightmare for coaches," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was saying after practice Thursday. "When they look at all the goals, all the mistakes by both teams ... "

Well, yeah, in three of the four games, the winning team has scored at least eight times, but for all its fun-house mirror metrics and quirky charm, this series' non-interpretative bottom line remains far more frightful to the Penguins, who still need a three-game winning streak to come out the other end.

On the off chance that Dan Bylsma's team doesn't have another 30 goals in its Eastern Conference quarterfinals arsenal, the unlikely narrative his guys are trying to write here has a lot more to do with defense.

Anyone remember defense?

As Badger Bob used to say, "Boys, when you combine careful defense with good goaltending and world-class forwards, you can win some hockey games."

All right, maybe he didn't say exactly that, but it sure has the ring of truth, no?

If the Penguins are going to play defense the way they did in Game 4 (as opposed to not at all, their official posture for Games 1 through 3), and if resuscitated goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is going to play like Marc-Andre Fleury (as opposed to some hologram of himself), there is probably enough firepower in front of him that to convulse hockey's historical landscape the way someone does about once every 35 years.

In the locker room yesterday, I asked a few Penguins if they knew what caused the sudden wave of defensive responsibility they brought to most of Game 4, just to see if all the short, crisp passes, the defensive-zone coverage and the absence of odd-man stampedes into Fleury's aura were merely happenstance.

"We just had a real mindset that we were going to get the puck out of our zone as soon as possible," said 20-year-old Simon Despres, who played for the first time in this series Wednesday night in lieu of Paul Martin and made an immediate impact on the goals-against. "We were definitely concentrating on the idea of close support, get help for the guy within five feet of the puck-carrier. The whole defensive system -- our system -- was something we really wanted to elevate."

Despite blowing at least one lead in each of the four games, the Penguins put together long stretches of defensive excellence that even included portions of a first period they managed to get out of with a 4-3 lead in Game 4.

Fleury was able to fly back to Pittsburgh with 44 minutes and eight seconds of shutout hockey in his carry-on, as the Flyers did not score after Jakub Voracek pumped a rebound past him at 15:52 of the first period.

"The fact that we didn't give up another five breakaways probably made it easier on him," smirked defenseman Brooks Orpik. "Not allowing the quality of chances that we did in the first few games was big."

For Bylsma, who went with a seventh defenseman in Game 4 and got serious contributions from Despres and Brian Strait, the defensive posture wasn't so much an adjustment as a reaffirming of vows.

"We did a lot of things that allowed us to be better defensively; we were very good with our forwards in the offensive zone, and that responsibility forced [the Flyers] into not a lot of puck possessions," the head coach said. "In our zone, we had five guys who were able to get the puck out, and the forwards were fast and physical.

"We played responsibly and well away from the puck and we didn't give up much. We didn't give up a goal the last 40 minutes. When you looked at that first period, you didn't know how many goals it was going to take to win."

Just as a matter of taste, but this whole series in a kind of "Groundhog Day" where instead of waking up in Punxsutawney, you're covering the NHL All-Star Game every day. You shouldn't need eight or 10 goals to win a hockey game, not every night.

Can we get a basic 3-1, 4-1 affair, something that looks a little more like a playoff game?

Or would that be way too close to sanity?

genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com. First Published April 20, 2012 12:00 AM


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