Penguins' defense displays its offense


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TAMPA, Fla. -- The Penguins are only nine games into their season, so it might be tempting to dismiss the numbers as little more than statistical flotsam.

Still, it's tough to ignore the reality that three of the Penguins' top six scorers are defensemen. They were the only NHL team with that distinction going into the games Tuesday night.

Indeed, only a handful of clubs had two defensemen among their top six, and quite a few had none.


Today

Game: Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:38 today, St. Pete Times Forum.

TV, radio, Internet: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9), www.penguins.nhl.com.

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Mike Smith for Lightni.

Penguins: Are 5-1 in past six visits to Tampa after going 0-6 in previous three seasons. ... LW Mike Comrie has point in three of past four games after being shut out in his first four. ... Do not have power-play goal in past two games after getting at least one in six of first seven.

Lightning: Is 2-1-1 at home. ... LW Ryan Malone has one goal, one assist in six career games against Penguins. ... Have averaged league-leading 3.38 goals per game.

Of note: Penguins are 2-4 in one-goal games, with both victories coming in overtime.


"It definitely is unusual," defenseman Paul Martin said. "You don't see that too often."

No, but as the Penguins prepare to face Tampa Bay tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum, Kris Letang is tied with Evgeni Malkin for second place in the team scoring race with eight points, while Alex Goligoski and Martin are tied with Mark Letestu for the fourth spot with seven.

But while the Penguins' accomplishment is very much an exception, there's no evidence to suggest it's a fluke. Indeed, coach Dan Bylsma suggested that the relative lack of points generated by the Penguins' defense in 2009-10 took him aback more than anything his defensemen have done so far this season.

"I was surprised last year about the offensive production I didn't get from my blue line," he said.

Sergei Gonchar, who signed with Ottawa as a free agent in July, led Penguins defensemen with 50 points in 62 games last season.

Goligoski had 37 in 69 games, while Letang contributed 27 in 73.

Martin, who was with New Jersey, had 11 in 22. He missed most of the season with a broken arm.

Of the 22 points for which Goligoski, Martin and Letang have combined, nine have come on power plays. Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Letestu, the three forwards who place in the top six, have 10 man-advantage points among their total of 26.

That suggests the defensemen's total isn't bloated by an inordinate number of power-play points.

What's more, they have just three multiple-point games between them, so their output hasn't been distorted by one or two outrageously productive nights.

"It's not like there are incredible plays that we've made," Letang said.

The offensive abilities and instincts of Letang, Goligoski and Martin are, of course, critical to the numbers they've put up because knowing when to join an offensive surge is at least as important as having the talent to make something happen once you do.

The impact of Bylsma's system on what the defensemen have been able to achieve should not be overlooked. It gives them the latitude to get involved offensively when the opportunity presents itself rather than simply tossing the puck ahead to the forwards, then watching what happens.

"The way we play, our team has the potential to score a lot of goals, and defensemen are a big part of that, getting pucks up to the forwards and stuff," Goligoski said.

"I would think that playing on our team and playing in our system, some guys would put up some points."

Martin, in particular, appreciates that because much of his time with the New Jersey Devils was spent operating within more restrictive systems.

"The system's different, more directed toward more freedom for the defense," he said:

"Joining the play, creating opportunities, that I didn't have before."

That doesn't mean Bylsma gives Letang, Martin and Goligoski an exemption from their defensive obligations. The idea is to read, and react to, each sequence as it unfolds, getting involved in the attack when circumstances dictate doing so, and proceeding cautiously when they don't.

"You have to play within the system," Martin said. "There's a time and a spot for everything."

Those times have come fairly often in the first nine games, and there's little reason to believe that will change anytime soon.

"Hopefully, we've been able to use those guys a significant amount on the power play and they're comfortable in reading the [even-strength] situations that allow them to be offensive," Bylsma said.

"They're an exceptional group at [making] that first pass, when they go back for pucks and execute in delivering the puck to the forwards. We've seen their numbers benefit, and our team benefit, from all those aspects of their game."

All without attracting any particular attention while the points are piling up.

"It kind of goes hand-in-hand with how the team is doing," Martin said.

"If guys are going and we're playing well, it just kind of happens. You don't even think about it."


For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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