Penguins stick by aggressive puck-pursuit plan
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It would have been so easy for Dan Bylsma to simply flip the switch, turn the Penguins into the New Jersey Devils and go all-defense, skating backward, wiggling their sticks through the neutral zone and building a fortress around their goaltender.
Who would have blamed him?
The Penguins had lost Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, other forwards off the top two lines, then their most feared defenseman in Brooks Orpik. The roster suddenly had become one part NHL, one part AHL, one part better-step-it-up-boys.
Yet no strategies changed: The forwards kept forechecking, the defensemen kept pinching, and the puck kept getting pursued as if it were lined with gold. And, somehow, someway, the team continues to hover near the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
"There's a strong belief among our players in how we play our game, and there never was a thought given to changing how we play," Bylsma said. "This started in the spring of '09, and it strengthened going into those playoffs."
It became rock solid, apparently, by the time Bylsma and his players were raising the Stanley Cup that year in Detroit. And few in the fan base doubted it in the time that followed.
But the extraordinary circumstances that developed after Crosby's concussion in early January soon grew into a torrent of recalls from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The goal total was shrinking, and the pressure on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury mounted. Some were writing off the season.
The Penguins are 41-22-8, winners of four of their past five games, and they are doing it their way.
One fitting example came March 8 against Buffalo, an opponent fighting to make the playoffs. Defenseman Zbynek Michalek aggressively pinched in the Sabres zone -- despite protecting a one-goal lead -- to flick a shot toward the net. Center Mark Letestu tipped it home for the backbreaker in a 3-1 victory.
"I saw that their goalie had the puck behind their net and thought he would send it around the rim," Michalek said, referring to Ryan Miller. "I was right there when it came, somebody covered for me, and I got it to the net. That's just how we do it."
"There is an idea that we've changed because we have skilled players out of the lineup," Bylsma said. "It looks different when you take Sidney Crosby off the ice because he's one of the best players in the world. You're not going to see as many highlight-reel goals from Craig Adams as you are from Sid. That's evident no matter what happens on the ice. But we're playing the exact same way. We're asking the exact same from our team."
The simplest way to describe the Penguins' rather complex system is this: Go north.
While many NHL teams turned to east-west passes -- long ones, at that -- to counter the neutral-zone trap the Devils mastered in the mid-1990s, Bylsma and his staff have a foundation of going directly forward, and doing so as quickly and smartly as possible.
It starts with the defense.
General manager Ray Shero emphasized mobility on the blue line when adding Paul Martin and Michalek as free agents last summer to a group that already included fine skaters in Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski and Orpik. Even the team's depth contributors, Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy, are mobile.
Armed with that, Bylsma and his staff have the defensemen follow a highly unusual method of puck retrieval when the opponent dumps into the Penguins end: Both defensemen pursue that puck. Whoever arrives first quickly chips to the other one nearby, and the other skates out of trouble and looks for the best outlet.
The standard method is to have the nearest defensemen pursue the puck and the other wait behind the net or the other side of the rink for an east-west pass.
"I've never seen anybody do this," said defenseman Matt Niskanen, acquired in a trade with Dallas. "But it's great. I'm really enjoying it."
The Red Wings and Minnesota Wild are using this puck-retrieval method now, and others are trying it. The Wild is doing so because it was head coach Todd Richards who, while coaching Wilkes-Barre two years ago, brought the idea to Bylsma.
"We actually have a number of variations on the puck retrieval, and our players take pride in that we can adjust that from game to game, even shift to shift," Bylsma said. "But that's the foundation of it: We want that puck right back."
Carrying through the neutral zone, the Penguins seldom try an east-west pass unless it is short and safe. Most often, the defenseman moves it to the forward, and the forward takes off -- again, usually north -- or chips it deep into the attacking zone.
Once in that zone, the puck continues to get pursued heavily, and that means everyone. One forward -- no matter which of the three, just whoever is farthest back on the play -- becomes designated "F3" in the scheme and is required to stay high in case a defenseman pinches or otherwise goes deep. Everyone else is free.
It is strikingly common to find the defensemen deep, even behind the opponent's net, even protecting a late lead, but the coaches have faith that "F3" will come through.
"I love that part of it," said left winger James Neal, another newcomer from Dallas. "We're supporting each other all over the rink, and everything we do is set up to keep the puck on our sticks."
Bylsma stresses attacking-zone time to his players, in part to underscore that every second that they keep the puck in the opponents' end is another second the opponent cannot score.
When the opponent gains clear possession in its end and tries to move up ice in a structured breakout, the Penguins will adopt a 1-2-2 posture. That has a conservative Devils-like look with one forward high, two flanking the wings, and the defensemen in the rear. But the more common sight with the Penguins comes when the forwards backcheck -- "Applying back pressure," Bylsma calls it -- and hound the opposing puck-carrier enough that the defensemen can step up with confidence.
Again, it is all aggressive, all with an objective of getting the puck.
"We've been very good defensively," Bylsma said of his team's play of late. "We've been attentive tracking back and smothering the neutral zone, giving our D a chance to have a great gap. We've also been relentless on the forecheck in creating offensive zone time. It's been attention to details and work ethic from our team."
Broadcaster Paul Steigerwald often calls it "Bylsma-gic" on the air, and the players are no less effusive about the system employed by Bylsma and assistants Tony Granato and Todd Reirden.
It also is employed -- and this became critically important in recent weeks -- at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That was best evident on the evening of Feb. 10, when four players were promoted for a game against the Los Angeles Kings and fit in immediately with the system.
"Our coaching staff certainly has the confidence of everyone in this room, and you can see that guys believe in what we have to do," goaltender Brent Johnson said. "It's neat to see that even the newest guys, like Alexei Kovalev, just step right in and enjoy it."
"My first day here, they told me to go north, and it's fun," Neal said. "Who wants to stay in the defensive zone? Can you score from back there?"
First Published March 17, 2011 12:00 am