Penguins focus on regaining defensive edge

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Dan Bylsma is more of a teacher and motivator with the Penguins, not one of those coaches with a reputation for being a gruff taskmaster.

Yet Bylsma was stern, at times using language worthy of HBO, in addressing the assembled players at the end of practice Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.

Clearly, concerns that had been brewing bubbled over in the aftermath of Tuesday's 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders. Not enough defensive integrity. Too much fancy stuff. Too loose on the puck management.

"I think there have certainly been words spoken about where we're at and the situation we're in, how we're playing right now and our mindset in terms of where we're at in relation to the end of the season -- with the games we've got remaining and then heading into the playoffs," Bylsma said a short time after he challenged the team to regain its hard-to-beat form.


Scouting report
  • Matchup: Penguins vs. New York Islanders, 7:08 p.m. today, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y.
  • TV/Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
  • Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Al Montoya for Islanders.
  • Penguins: 10-5 in first game of back-to-backs. ... Six short-handed goals on road tied for most in NHL before games Wednesday. ... Pascal Dupuis has an 11-game points streak (8 goals, 6 assists).
  • Islanders: Worst home team in East (36 points in 37 games). ... Among least penalized teams, 8.9 minutes per game. ... Frans Nielsen has eight points (4 goals, 4 assists) over the past five games and Josh Bailey has a five-game points streak (1 goal, 6 assists).
  • Hidden stat: Tuesday's 5-3 win against the Penguins marked the third time this season the Islanders have scored five times before the end of the second period.

"They realize the situation, and there have been words spoken, both from players and the coaches."

There are just six games left for the Penguins to bring the rhetoric and the reality together, starting tonight in a rematch with the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.

Defenseman Paul Martin said the club began to stray awhile ago, but an 11-game winning streak that stretched to 14 games without a regulation loss helped mask some problems that could be fatal in the playoffs for a team widely considered a strong Stanley Cup contender.

"We weren't necessarily playing our best hockey during the stretch when we were winning games," he said. "We have a lot of talent, and we're fortunate we get that many goals that we can give up some. But that's not what we expect out of ourselves. When we give up that many chances, it's tough.

"We just need to refocus and try to get back to where we were at the beginning of that streak when we were playing tight games -- definitely a lot tighter in our defensive zone."

In the three games since that 14-game stretch, the Penguins were blown out at Ottawa, 8-4, played a solid game in a 5-2 win against New Jersey and then fell apart against the Islanders, one of the worst teams in the NHL.

"We had a letdown in Ottawa and had a good bounce-back against New Jersey, but you hate to have to try to do that every other game," Martin said.

Team captain Sidney Crosby identified two problems.

First, he said, the Penguins can't assume they will be playoff-ready just because the calendar says it's time.

"You just have to build good habits going into the playoffs," Crosby said. "You just can't turn it on when you get there. That's got to be our mindset here the next few games."

More specifically, Crosby said, the team has not been fundamentally sound when entering an opponent's end or in protecting its blue line.

"As far as rushes and managing the puck at the other team's blue line, I think that's where we kind of get ourselves into trouble -- and at our own blue line sometimes with turning the puck over," he said. "You can't turn the puck over at either blue line."

The Penguins led the NHL with 247 goals going into games Wednesday and boast the league's leading scorer in Evgeni Malkin (99 points) and five players with more than 20 goals. But they have long said that concentrating on their defensive play throughout the lineup, making a quick transition and having strong puck management is what leads to their offense.

The stated goal for some time has been to overtake the New York Rangers and finish atop the Eastern Conference. Tuesday's loss hurt. It left them three points back going into the Rangers' game Wednesday against Winnipeg.

The Islanders are expecting to face a team with a lot to prove tonight.

"They're a great team. There's no question about that," center Josh Bailey said of the Penguins. "We know we've got to come out sharp. They're obviously not going to be happy about [Tuesday's performance]. We're going to have a similar effort, if not better, to get the win on Thursday."

The Penguins are looking for an effort with marked improvement, something that could be well within their capability.

"I don't think it's a huge problem," Martin said of their recent concerns. "We might think that because it's been awhile since we've lost a couple of games in the vicinity of a week. We maybe just didn't tackle some of the issues because we were winning games, and now we realize and notice it more.

"We have to do something about it."

Note: The Atlantic Division champion is in line to win the Eastern Conference and the No. 1 playoff seed that goes with it.


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


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