Do the Pittsburgh Penguins Need Their Superstars to Play More Two-Way Hockey?

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2013

March 22, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins centers Evgeni Malkin (71) and Sidney Crosby (87) on the ice before playing the New Jersey Devils at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles Leclaire-USA TODAY Sports

They don't play the games on paper. If they did, the Pittsburgh Penguins would win the Stanley Cup every year.

Something has gone dreadfully wrong in Pittsburgh in the last two playoff years. They gave up a slew of goals (30 in six games) to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round in the 2012 playoffs and got taken apart in the Eastern Conference Final in 2013.

Last season, the Penguins survived a first-round matchup with the New York Islanders, but they often let the Islanders operate with impunity behind the net. The battered and bruised Ottawa Senators could not take advantage of all the opportunities the Penguins gave them in the conference semifinal, but the Boston Bruins found plenty of open ice in the Eastern Conference Final and swept the Penguins out of the playoffs.

In both playoff years, defense was often missing in action.

That would not seem to be a big problem, because the Penguins are loaded with superstars. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin may very well be the two best players in the game. At worst, they are Nos. 1 and 4, respectively. 

It would seem with those two leading the way, the Penguins would have no problems rolling over everyone in their way. Nobody can match their firepower, and everyone who goes up against them knows that.

But hockey is not a simple game, and it takes a lot more than goal scoring to win playoff series. It takes a concentrated effort in the defensive zone, the neutral zone as well as the offensive zone. The Penguins don't seem to realize this. At least not in the playoffs.

Their top players are magical when it comes to putting the puck in the net, but they need more of an effort on the defensive end or their seasons will continue to end in disappointing fashion. Especially in postseason games.

It has to begin with Crosby and Malkin because they set the tone for everything the Penguins do on the ice. It's not enough to play occasional defense or do it in the regular season. It seems that's not a problem prior to the postseason.

If you listen to Malkin, Crosby is one of the best defensive forwards in the game.

“It's tough to say who (is) better,” Malkin told Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Datsyuk has a quicker stick, longer reach. He can take pucks from between your legs, if you have it close. Sid is so strong. He wins battles in corners. He plays physical. He takes puck from you like that, then goes to try (and) score.”

There is no comparison between Crosby and Datsyuk based on their defense in this year's postseason. Datsuyk was able to shut down Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference semifinal for much of the series, as the Blackhawks captain scored just once against the Red Wings.

On the other hand, John Tavares of the Islanders had complete freedom behind the Pittsburgh net and when he got deep in the Pittsburgh zone. The Bruins forwards had nothing but open ice in the first two games of their playoff series with the Penguins. David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic were able to put on a passing clinic when they advanced the puck in the Pittsburgh zone.

Where were Crosby and Malkin while opponents like Tavares and Krejci were wheeling and dealing? They were nowhere to be found.

The Penguins set the tone for their ineffective defensive performances in the second game of the Islanders series. New York came through with a 4-3 win at the Consol Energy Center. Malkin had a game-high three giveaways in that game, Crosby had two and the Penguins had 11 as a team.

In Game 2 of the series against the Bruins, a Crosby giveaway early in the first period allowed Brad Marchand to score on a breakaway and set the tone for a 6-1 Boston victory.

Many consider that game to be the worst of Crosby's career. He made several bad decisions that led to Boston scoring opportunities.

The Bruins are one of the most well-rounded teams in the NHL, but when it comes to firepower, they don't compare with the Penguins. Prior to the playoff sweep, the Penguins had dominated the Bruins. They kept their defensive errors to a minimum and they were able to score goals in nearly every clutch situation.

They keep it much simpler in the regular season and play consistently on the defensive end. If they don't find a way to do it in the postseason, the Penguins will be left with more heartbreak next year.