Contrary to what some experts predicted, the Penguins' no-name defense is getting it done

ByScott Burnside ESPN logo
Monday, June 6, 2016

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' defense corps has been listening to two basic storylines for months.

It was either: The Penguins were doomed because their defense wasn't good enough.

Or, the Penguins might be OK in the playoffs in spite of their defense, which would otherwise doom any other team unlucky enough to have this group on its roster.

But the one storyline that has, until recently at least, rarely been given voice: Holy cow, this Penguins defense is good. And maybe not just good, but Stanley Cup good.

And say this about a blue-line corps that, outside of star Kris Letang, lacks the profile of pretty much any other playoff team this spring, these Penguins are extremely self-aware.

They know what people have been saying about them and they have excelled in spite of it. Or maybe because of it.

"I think that particular storyline is something that they've been saying from the start of the year," Penguins defenseman Ian Cole said in an interview. "We got [Phil] Kessel and they're like, 'Oh wow, they're all set but man, their D.' So I think everyone's aware of that."

It's easier to have this discussion, of course, when a team is just two wins away from a Stanley Cup championship, which is the case with the Penguins in spite of their 3-2 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks in Game 3 of the finals Saturday night. Game 4 is here Monday night, 8 ET.

In spite of the absence of top-four defender Trevor Daley, who broke his ankle late in the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Penguins have been rock-solid defensively. They have limited opposing teams to 30 or fewer shots in six straight games and 10 of their past 12 playoff games.

They have allowed just nine goals in their past five games, including two elimination games against the Lightning in the conference finals. In 21 playoff games, they have allowed more than three goals just four times.

And if they keep up that level of play, well, it's hard to imagine this defense-by-committee isn't going to be invited in the next couple of weeks to a parade where no one will be talking about how unimpressive its members are.

"I've been surprised because I didn't realize how good they were," admitted former NHL goaltender and longtime national analyst Darren Eliot.

"I didn't know that Brian Dumoulin had maybe become the most improved player in the National Hockey League this year. Ben Lovejoy can skate," Eliot said. "So you can put players in a system and ask all of them to do the same thing as Kris Letang -- which means we all know that he'll jump up and join the rush, and that he can defend with his feet, that he can go back and retrieve pucks quickly. But when you make that a requirement of everybody and you have a mobile defense, you see what's possible and they're proving that."

Credit is due Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, of course, for implementing a game plan that seems especially tailored to this group of defenders, regardless of the external view of them.

"I think to their credit, you know, they believe in one another, they play hard for each other, and I think they believe in the team as a group," Sullivan said. "I think that's what has allowed us to kind of endure some of the injuries that we faced for the last four months."

There is little question the group -- which includes Lovejoy, who had a goal and an assist in Game 3; Olli Maatta, who has bounced back nicely after being a healthy scratch for three games in the conference finals; Justin Schultz, who was cast out by the Edmonton Oilers because of his perceived deficiencies; and Dumoulin, who has almost overnight become a top-four defender for the Penguins; and Letang, the true star of the group -- is extremely tight-knit.

"I don't know if it's necessarily the fact that we're trying to prove people wrong," Cole said. "I think everybody's trying to go about their job and do it very, very well. And I think that everyone's really taken it upon themselves to raise their game, knowing that this talk is out there. And I think that you see that, just kind of what we've thought, that this is actually an asset to our team, that it's something that it actually helps our team and it's not something that's a hindrance or winning in spite of our D corps."

Even the Sharks, who have broken down some of the best defensive groups in the NHL while advancing to their first-ever Stanley Cup finals, admitted surprise they hadn't been able to get to the Penguins' defenders. Instead, the blue-line group has made a science of quickly retrieving pucks, and if a smart play isn't available, it has become adept at flipping the pucks into spaces where the Penguins' speedy forwards can track down and take possession.

Now, no blue-line corps works in a vacuum, so credit must also go to a forward group that is committed to two-way play. Still, one longtime scout said he thinks we might be seeing an evolution of sorts in how teams construct their blue line.

"I think their 'D' are smart," the scout said. "They aren't all big and fast, but they can get to the puck and move it quickly. Looks like they are playing with a lot of confidence.

"Looks like the game is evolving right before our eyes. 'D' are getting smaller as game gets faster."

Interesting storyline, no? More interesting than the well-worn storyline asking exactly who these guys are.