Monday, October 10, 2011

Pens - Oilers: The Hangover

After sleeping (somewhat) on it, the two things that stuck out in my mind after last night's game are:

  1. The Penguins still lack a legitimate scoring threat outside of Malkin and Crosby
  2. The Penguins defense is exposed by teams that can carry speed across the blueline
First, the scoring. The chances were there offensively for the Penguins. Even on the PP, the Pens generated a number of good opportunities. When the Pens establish their aggressive forecheck, they have forwards who can cycle the puck very well and they show good creativity on both top two scoring lines. Players like Kunitz and Sullivan have shown good playmaking ability and have been great set-up men through three games, but the problem is there is no one who can really finish. What that has come down to in the first three games is James Neal and Tyler Kennedy. 

Neal and Kennedy both have a goal and an assist so far, but each has had issues in burying chances. James Neal has been exceptional in every other aspect of his game, showing great physical presence, tremendous speed, and excellent awareness on the ice. He's even shown tenacity on the back-check. Through his play he has created a lot of room for himself on the ice and he goes to the right areas to score, but his shooting just doesn't do him justice. His shots are either high and wide right or a foot off the ice and right down the center. He appears to lack the command of his shots to pick the corners effectively or to elevate the puck without missing the net entirely. This has to change. Whether he changes his shot selection (he's often using a slap shot), adjusts the blade loft, or just practices through it, he needs to be able to put his shots consistently on the open part of the net. If he can do that, James Neal is an absolute lock for 30 goals per season.

Tyler Kennedy needs a bit more work. Kennedy doesn't have the size that James Neal has to generate space for himself physically. What Kennedy does have is decent speed, which he could use more effectively to back defenders off by carrying that speed across the blueline. Kennedy is an effective forechecker and good cycler, but he's pretty one-dimensional when the puck is on his stick: he's going to shoot. That's not such a bad thing as he has a deceptive release and better command of his shot than Neal, but he's often in a position where he doesn't have enough time and space to take advantage of this when he shoots. If Kennedy would work on his passing and setting up plays (give-and-go with Kunitz) he'd open up a bit more ice for himself to get a better shot on net. Having just signed a new contract and trying to legitimize his role as a top-six forward, Kennedy is going to have to work harder than ever to elevate his game to the next tier. Kennedy appears motivated and perfectly able to do so. If he could make the adjustments offensively and work harder on the back-check, Kennedy can really solidify his place in Bylsma's Penguins.

Now, about that defense. The Penguins defense under Bylsma remains very active in the offense. It's clear that everyone from Kris Letang to Deryk Engelland has the green light to join the rush, and they're actively encouraged to do so. The problem with being so aggressive offensively is it leaves the Penguins exposed on the counter-attack. This plagued the Penguins early last season, as the defensive zone coverage suffered mightily as the defensemen were too quick to push play the other way. It's improved a good bit since then, but the Penguins are still exposed by quick forwards and good passing. The Penguins defense likes to defend at the blueline. This high-pressure tactic is designed to generate quick counter-attacks, but it leaves the Penguins defenders susceptible should the forwards carry speed into the offensive zone. The Penguins haven't employed a trap to try and eliminate any speed through the neutral zone, so opposing forwards have been able to find success breaking outside with speed. While the Penguins defenders, for the most part, are good skaters (Deryk Engelland the noted exception), playing that aggressive at the blueline does force them to cut-and-chase too often. When the defense turns towards their goal to chase, they are immediately blind to the play opening up behind them. As the Pens forwards are usually skating back to chase as well, the offense has been able to find an open man skating in late or to the opposite wing with alarming regularity. If the puck carrier is able to successfully gain the goal line, in the time it takes for the Penguins defense and back-checking forwards to turn back up ice and pick up the play the chance has either already developed or the Penguins struggle to play catch-up. 

The solution here may be two-fold. First, back off a bit from the blueline. By playing more of a contain strategy to keep the play in front of them, the defense can still be aggressive when there is necessary support but this gives the defense a bit more time and space to play the angles and ensure they don't get beat by speed to the outside or an effective dump-in. The second piece of this puzzle would be to discipline the defense jumping in offensively. Kris Letang is an exceptional case here as he has proven he can truly join the rush without exposing himself much defensively, but others are not that adept. Reign in the green light into a yellow light and make sure that the defense is able to meet the countering offense head-on and not as they're sprinting back. Again, it's all about keeping the play in front of them. 

This two-fold solution will surely limit the Penguins offensive contributions from their defensemen, but it will surely save the Penguins goaltenders from exhaustion. Through three games, the Pens have averaged over 30 shots against. Granted, there have been two overtime frames, but in each contest the Pens goalies have had to weather too many high quality chances. In each contest, the Pens goaltenders have had to be their best player. It's just not fair, not to mention practical, to ask your goaltender to carry you each and every night. Especially when the Pens have a defensive core with that much talent...

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