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Pittsburgh Penguins quietly winning with defense

(Kevin Sousa/Icon Sportswire)

On the surface, it almost seems counterintuitive: build a roster around offensively gifted players, then try to win with… defense? Why pay for those skill guys if you’re just going to try to grind out low-scoring wins? A closer look shows that strategy might actually be able to work. Or at least it appears so early on for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

As if having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up front — not to mention one of the league’s top scoring blueliners in Kris Letang — wasn’t enough, the Pens went out and made Phil Kessel the focus of their offseason this past summer. Sure, they added some depth guys like Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr, and that depth should come in handy down the line, but the headliner was definitely Kessel. And while they did end up swinging a pretty good deal to land the perennial 30-goal scorer, they still had to give up some quality prospects and pay a decent chunk of his large salary.

A roster featuring Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Letang almost looks like an All-Star team on paper. Surely they’d just outscore everyone and win games 6-5 right? Not exactly. Through 11 contests, Pittsburgh is averaging 2.18 goals per game. That’s tied for 24th in the NHL. The Sabres and Devils are scoring more frequently. Letang has just four total points. Crosby is on pace for eight goals.

Thing is, the Penguins are winning anyway. In fact, they’ve quietly been one of the hottest teams in hockey lately — even if they haven’t necessarily looked the part. Since beginning the season 0-3, they’ve won seven of eight to climb within two points of first in the Metro Division. In that stretch, they’ve knocked off the Capitals and Predators — two of the best teams around. And the only team they lost to was the Stars, who no one seems to be able to slow down right now.

Actually, Dallas just might be the perfect example of what many people expected Pittsburgh to be: an entertaining club that overwhelms the opposition with its star power most nights. They’ll win more often than not, simply because they can put the puck in the net with absurd efficiency. As for goaltending and defense? Worry about that when the playoffs roll around.

Of course, it’s still early. And the Pens will ultimately be judged by what they accomplish in the postseason, not October. They’ve put together better regular season stretches than this in the past, and they’ve done it with much more pizzazz — Crosby looking every bit like the best point-producer in the world, with Malkin not far behind. So is this really the way they’re going to play hockey now?

Time will tell. Ideally, they’d be able to utilize Mike Johnston’s more defensive-minded system to find success, without stifling their own offensive creativity. After all, what’s the point of having these guys if you hold them back and don’t play to their strengths? That’s like having a garage full of Lamborghinis and Bentleys… but only using them to drive slowly to the post office twice a month.

Then again, maybe this group could use a more defensive-minded approach at times. After all, the teams that hoist the Stanley Cup usually find their way there by making a priority of keeping the puck out of their own net first. With Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes, Pittsburgh has a netminder who has won it all before. Of course, he’s about as enigmatic as it gets when the postseason rolls around. Since being a champion in 2009, he’s had some epic meltdowns in the playoffs — a couple of which may have derailed potentially deep runs for his teammates.

That said, he is routinely near the top of the league during the regular season, and he’s been phenomenal so far this year (1.71 goals against average and a .942 save percentage). And it should be noted that he actually looked really good during the club’s first-round exit at the hands of the Rangers last spring. If they want to bring home the hardware, they’ll need Fleury at the top of his game. And playing better defense in front of him can only help.

To do that, they’ll need to buy in as a comprehensive unit. And that includes the forwards. In Letang, the Penguins have a truly elite blueliner — but they don’t have much around him in terms of experience and stability. Anyone who predicted this team would struggle in 2015-16 quickly pointed to an unproven defense corps as Exhibit A, and it’s hard to argue against that stance. Sure, they have some young players with intriguing upside (Olli Maatta, for example), and maybe they will evolve into key pieces over time. But it’s hard to rely on untested commodities in your own zone at this level.

With that in mind, maybe this isn’t such a bad way for Pittsburgh to win hockey games. For now, at least. Over the last couple years, the Pens have struggled in the playoffs when their best-of-seven series have turned into low-scoring, grind-it-out affairs. They’ve generally been fine when they find opponents that are willing to trade goals with them, but they seem to get frustrated and thrown off balance when they get matched up with a club that wants to play 1-0 or 2-1 games.

If they can harness an ability to be more comfortable in those situations now, perhaps they’ll emerge as a more well-rounded team when the games really matter. But they’ll still need their big guns engaged and in position to thrive as well — and that’s a vital piece of the puzzle. Finding that balance would open up their most likely path to success.

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