Collier: Eaton's return to Penguins boosts defense
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The Penguins in full feather have spun themselves into the very kind of force that can beat you any way you please, showing little preference between a hot 7-6 shooting gallery of a hockey game and a 3-0 Fifth Avenue freeze out.
The Great Eight Straight winning streak in progress would be pretty popular regardless of its particulars, so no one is terribly jittery that the first half of it was accomplished despite the fact that the Penguins were leaking more than four goals a game. The second half, including the suffocation Saturday of New York's reeling Rangers, was more the kind of responsible performance coaches associate with habitual winning.
The Penguins have permitted a total of only four goals in the most recent four victories, which just happens to be the kind of hockey they were playing the previous springtime around here that Mark Eaton was making himself invisible to all but the city's most serious hockey students, particular the defense majors; I believe it was 2009.
"The stability with which he plays, you know, a stay-at-home defenseman, I'm not sure we really have that definition on our team, but Mark's been really stable back there; he's been excellent," coach Dan Bylsma said after Eaton worked another 23 shifts that amounted to nearly 16 minutes of clinical ice time.
"There's been games when he's playing alongside Kris Letang or Matt Niskanen, and you don't notice Mark Eaton, and that's a compliment to the way he's played. He's been real steady in his execution and spot on in moving the puck out and just making smart plays."
That is why it was such a smart play for Penguins general manager Ray Shero to rescue Eaton from hockey's back-end-of-the-career netherworld the 35-year was travelling in the fall. A one-year deal for $725,000 to play for the Penguins again was a gift both ways.
"Making the Penguins team was my ultimate goal, but I just tried to keep it short-sighted and short-term, going to Wilkes-Barre to try and get my game going, but, obviously, the lockout and everything else didn't allow that to happen," said Eaton, who was released by the New York Islanders in the spring of 2012 and saw no available landing spot for an uncomfortably long time. "I just tried to work hard, keep getting better every day, and eventually end up here. And fortunately that's what happened."
So now what's happening is that you look up and notice that the Rangers didn't get a shot in the game's first 11 minutes, and that Eaton is sliding the puck sharply to Letang with just the right decision, much like in 2009, and that Eaton is helping significantly to make things easier for Marc-Andre Fleury, who Saturday set the franchise record with his 23rd career shutout.
"He's only gotten better since the last time I was here," Eaton said of Fleury, "and the same with [Letang]. It was always nice to play with [Letang]. He's matured a lot over the past two, two-and-a-half years and you can see it on and off the ice, and he's one of the best defensemen in the league.
"When was I was here last go-round, those guys were so young. With two years more experience under their belt. It really shows. They were already great players, but they're even greater now."
Fleury, who dealt with only four Rangers shots in the first period, stopped all 19 he encountered thereafter as the Penguins won for the 13th time in their past 18 games. The Flower sees pretty much the same Eaton who was in front of him the night they all got their hands on the Stanley Cup, and that's a very good feeling.
"I'm enjoying it," Fleury said. "Mark's always been a really good defensive defenseman. I like to have him around, blocking shots, guarding the net. He does his thing, which is all the right little things. He's, uh, not quiet, but you don't see him getting five goals or anything. But he's very smart, very experienced player. He's playing pretty much the same kind of game."
Eaton's not here to sell tickets. That end of it is pretty much taken care of by the club's more spectacular players, which is essentially all of them. But you get the idea that if Bylsma could get the kind of game he got Saturday every time out, the Penguins might play to the maximum number of potential audiences this season.
"In terms of limiting other teams' opportunities, Mark's been a big part of it, but it's been team defense," Bylsma said. "It's been how we've executed and played with the puck. We knew the Rangers were a good team in transition and that they have great skill and speed. But we did a great job eliminating their speed with the puck and that's team defense, a team mentality."
There are all manner of statistics available that purport to explain an eight-game Penguins winning streak, but the most critical sometimes aren't the most obvious. Sometimes you've got to look down that list for a larger, if less obvious truth, so try this:
The Penguins are 6-0 with Mark Eaton in the lineup.
"Shh," Eaton said. "Don't jinx it."
First Published March 17, 2013 12:00 am