Penguins have a winning formula

Defense is the key to success

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Penguins forward Mike Rupp made it all sound so simple the other day.

"We like our chances against anybody. We've got the best defense in the league and we have a great goaltender."

Sometimes, simple is all that's necessary.

The Penguins will beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in five -- six games, tops -- in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series because they play great defense and they have goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

It's a formula that worked well during the second half of the season when the Penguins were without offensive stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Crosby missed the final 41 games after Jan. 5 because of a concussion. The team went 23-13-5 without him. Malkin missed five games with an aching left knee and a sinus infection in late January and early February, then played just six minutes Feb. 4 against the Buffalo Sabres before his right knee was injured in a collision with Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, forcing him to have surgery and miss the final 29 games. In those 35 games without Crosby and Malkin (including the one when he made that brief appearance), the team went 20-11-4.

That's remarkable.

That's some formula.

I know what the doubters are saying: six of those 20 wins were in shootouts, and there are no shootouts in the playoffs. Those same cynics will tell you the Penguins are going to have a hard time getting enough goals against the high-scoring Lightning without Crosby and Malkin.

It would be foolish to argue with that logic. Of course, not having Crosby, in all likelihood, is going to hurt. He's the best player in the world. It's also going to hurt not having Malkin, who has become something of a forgotten man with so much attention being paid to a possible return by Crosby. "I know I miss him," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. Everybody in the organization misses Malkin, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP when the team won the Cup in 2009.

It also would be silly to say that a few goals from James Neal, Alex Kovalev and Kris Letang wouldn't really help. Neal has scored just one goal in 20 games since joining the Penguins. Kovalev has two in 20 games. Letang hasn't scored in 25 games and had only two goals after Crosby went out.

If the team can get even a little something from those guys ...

But the Penguins don't have to beat the Lightning, 6-5. Four 3-2 or 2-1 wins will be just as effective. They are built to win those types of games.

I remind you that the Montreal Canadiens took the Penguins down last season in the second round of the playoffs -- and the Penguins had Crosby and Malkin. Neither of the stars had a good series; each had just one goal in the seven games. The problem is the defense wasn't good enough to compensate. Neither was Fleury, who gave up an early first goal in each of the final three losses, including one after just 32 seconds in Game 7.

Fleury is much better headed into these playoffs. He was a deserved choice as Penguins MVP after going 35-14-5 after a 1-6 start. He's also playoffs-proven after winning the Cup in '09 and leading the team to the finals in '08.

The defense in front of Fleury also is much better. The Penguins allowed 196 goals this season, 38 fewer than the Lightning. That tied them for sixth fewest in the NHL. It's what Shero envisioned when he invested $20 million for five years in Zbynek Michalek and $25 million for five years in Paul Martin in the offseason. With Michalek, Martin, Letang and Brooks Orpik, the Penguins have the best top-four defensive unit in the NHL. Rupp is absolutely right about that.

That defense certainly seems to match up well with the Lightning. Tampa Bay scored five goals in a 5-3 win Oct. 27 against the Penguins, but that was when Fleury was in his season-opening funk. In the next three games between the teams, the Lightning managed one, one and two goals, although they did sneak out a 2-1 win March 31.

Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier are powerful offensive forces, but the Penguins did a nice job containing them. St. Louis had three goals against them, but two came in that October win. Stamkos and Lecavalier had just one goal apiece in the four games. In his fabulous three-year career, Stamkos has 119 goals, but he hasn't scored an even-strength goal against the Penguins in 12 games.

One other reason to like the Penguins defense is its penalty-killing work. It was the NHL's best this season with a kill rate of 86.1 percent. Tampa Bay had the sixth-best power play in the league, but it managed only two goals in 21 chances in the four games against the Penguins.

Game 1 is Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center. I'm thinking the Penguins can wrap up the series in Game 5 at home April 23.

The defense will rest before Round 2.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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