Until recently, the blue line of the Pittsburgh Penguins had been devastated by injuries. There was a highly publicized point in the season when the team was missing four of their top six defensemen, yet the slashes were still coming in the win column.
The Penguins managed to remain one of the top teams in the NHL despite missing key defensive contributors like Paul Martin, Kris Letang and Rob Scuderi for extended periods of time. Logic would dictate that Pittsburgh would improve as these quality players returned but so far that just hasn't been the case.
Pittsburgh's defensive core has been mostly healthy since the end of December. Scuderi returned to the lineup on Dec. 29 and Letang rejoined the team on Jan. 5. Martin returned more recently—on Jan. 20—but compared to the AHL-esque top six that the Penguins had been icing, the group seemed much improved on paper.
In practice, the Penguins have struggled in their own zone over the last 15 games. The wheels haven't fallen off and Pittsburgh's massive lead in the Metropolitan Division isn't going to be in danger any time soon, but the team simply hasn't been as good on defense recently as it had been in November and most of December.
Pittsburgh's average shots against is slowly trending upwards, which seems counterintuitive since the blue line is getting healthier as the season progresses. Throughout the last 15 contests, the Penguins have given up an average of 29.7 shots against per game. This has pushed them down to eighth in the NHL in that particular category, and they are in danger of falling further if this recent tendency turns into a constant.
The mantra of good defense wins championships is overblown to some degree, but the Penguins have been securing victories because of a strong offensive push from the likes of James Neal, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—the defense just hasn't been getting the job done, and the averages are starting to level out.
Since Dec. 23, Pittsburgh has allowed an average of three goals a game while scoring 3.33. That's cutting it awfully close. Wins are wins and the Penguins are 10-4-1 in their last 15, but the question must be asked: Is this the kind of defensive prowess that can win the team another Stanley Cup?
Let's look back at the last eight champions to see.
|Average Shots Against for Stanley Cup Winners|
|Season||Cup Winner||Regular Season Average||Playoff Average|
|2007-08||Detroit Red Wings||23.5||23.6|
Aside from the 2010-11 Boston Bruins, no Stanley Cup winner since 2005 has given up more than 30 shots on average once the playoffs roll around. In that same span of time, that Bruins team is also the only squad that got away with allowing more than 30 shots on average during the regular season.
(The 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes and 2008-09 Penguins technically allowed more than 30 shots per game as well, but by mere fractions.)
Unless Pittsburgh is counting on Marc-Andre Fleury to pull a historic run out of his back pocket a la Tim Thomas, then they're right on the line of being effective enough defensively to take a run at the Stanley Cup. That's why it's imperative that the Penguins tighten things up in their own zone. Goals are tougher to come by during the playoffs as the team learned last season, but defense never quits.
It can get you through tough one-goal contests when they matter the most. The Penguins have proven capable of winning high-flying 6-4 games, but can they win an entire series in that fashion? Recent history indicates that it isn't likely.
A portion of the blame for this recent lapse on defense can be placed on simple rink rust. With guys like Scuderi and Martin sitting for so long, it's only natural that it would take them a bit longer to get their legs underneath them.
There's also the question of chemistry. Pittsburgh's few workhorses on the blue line got used to playing mountains of minutes, and they became accustomed to working with the same partner on a nightly basis. With players returning to the lineup every week or two, it changes the way that Dan Bylsma utilizes each individual, which in turn effects how they play.
What must also be considered is that Pittsburgh's forward group is now getting taken apart by the same injury bug that chewed through the defense in the early part of the season. Pascal Dupuis is known mostly as an offensive player, but he's incredibly underrated as a two-way forward that backchecks hard and wins battles along the boards.
Pittsburgh is missing key personnel who could typically be counted on to curtail this growing problem of shots against, and there's no easy way for Ray Shero to fix things. He's already charged with finding some scoring help for the third line and potentially securing a top-line right winger to fill Dupuis' spot.
It seems unlikely that he'll be able to bring in a ringer on defense as well, so the solution to slowing the shots against must come from within. Only time will tell if it's a chemistry issue, a rink rust problem or something else entirely.
Right now the Penguins aren't playing quite well enough in their own zone though, and it's something that needs to be rectified soon, lest the squad come up short in their quest for Lord Stanley's Cup once again.