Brian Dumoulin

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Penguins redefining defense by committee

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins lost defenseman Kris Letang for the entire postseason it was thought be a crushing blow to their chances to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Especially with a path that was likely to include two of the NHL’s best teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Not only is Letang one of the best defensemen in the world, he is one of the most important cogs in the Penguins’ machine. During last year’s Stanley Cup run he played close to 29 minutes per game and did so at an incredibly high level. Losing that sort of workhorse is nearly impossible to replace.

But even with Letang’s absence (and even additional injuries to defensemen Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz) the Penguins find themselves one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final without really having a true No. 1 defenseman to turn to.

This is almost unheard of in today’s NHL.

Every team that goes on a deep run in the playoffs has a minute-eating defenseman that can be counted on to play a significant portion of the game. Letang. Drew Doughty. Duncan Keith. Erik Karlsson. Zdeno Chara. Players like that.

When it comes to the playoffs, teams tend to roll with their top-four defensemen the most and do their best to hide or shelter their third pairing by limiting their minutes as much as they can. The Penguins have not had that luxury without Letang.

That means everybody has had to step up and take on an expanded role. Just about everybody is playing more than they are used to while there is virtually no difference between each role.

First, consider that every team (22 of them) that has reached the Stanley Cup Final since the 2005-06 season has had at least one defensemen average more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game. Twenty-one of those 22 teams have had at least two players log more than 22 minutes, while 18 of them have had at least one player average more than 25 minutes of ice-time per game.

The 2016-17 Penguins currently have none.

Brian Dumoulin is currently their ice-time leader, playing just over 21 minutes per game.

Let’s take a look at what that looks like from a usage perspective.

The table here looks at this year’s Penguins, the remaining final four teams this season, and every Stanley Cup Finalist dating back to 2011-12 and what percentage of a 60-minute game each of their top-six defensemen played on an average night. This year’s Penguins should stick out as a massive outlier.

 

Other than the 2014-15 Lightning and 2011-12 Devils every other team on here had a No. 1 defenseman that was on the ice for more than 40 percent of the game on a given night. And the Lightning and Devils were very close to it.

All of them had a No. 2 defenseman that played more than 36 percent of the game on a given night.

Again, the Penguins currently have nobody taking on that sort of a workload in either spot.

Every team on there was able to limit their playing time of their third pairing (some more than others) while there was a significant gap between the ice-time for their No. 1 and No. 6 defenseman.

For Pittsburgh, their third pairing plays almost as much as their second pairing, while there is minimal difference between the workload for their top pairing and their third pairing. Last year, as an example, Letang averaged more than 13 additional minutes per game than their No. 6 defenseman.

This year Dumoulin is only averaging three more minutes than their No. 6.

It really is a defense by committee approach and it has been kind of fascinating to watch.

They are clearly lacking the elite puck-moving presence that a player like Letang can provide, and at times their ability to smoothly and efficiently exit the defensive zone has been a struggle.

It is also a situation where a lot of players are being thrust into roles they are not used to playing.  This has at times led to extended zone time for their opponents and put them in a situation where they are giving up way more shots per game than they want. They are also fortunate to have two outstanding goalies in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury that have been fantastic this postseason to keep pucks out of the net. But overall it is a unit that has seemingly taken on a whatever it takes approach to get the job done.

It runs counter to everything we have seen from contending teams in recent years when it comes to the makeup of a defense, but they have somehow found a way to make this patchwork unit work. Now here they are, just one win away from getting back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Penguins hold off late Sens’ surge to win Game 4

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A pair of unlikely sources provided scoring for the Penguins on Friday, as they evened the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators at two games apiece.

Earlier in the day, coach Mike Sullivan made his decision to start Matt Murray in place of Marc-Andre Fleury. It was a move certainly open to debate but what was more pressing for the Penguins was a need to regain their ability to score goals. They had fallen behind in the series and had only three goals through its first three games.

Credit to the Senators for their tight checking and defensive trap, which helped neutralize Pittsburgh’s speed and offensive capabilities. Hoping to avoid moving within one loss of elimination, the Penguins were able to solve the Senators and Craig Anderson before just barely holding on for a 3-2 victory in Ottawa.

Sidney Crosby scored Pittsburgh’s second goal and had an assist. He also led his team in shots on goal, but is obviously not the unlikely source for scoring. That title on Friday belonged to both Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin, who each scored their first goals, respectively, of these playoffs.

Maatta went short side on Anderson, who was cheating to the middle of the crease, and Dumoulin’s shot from the point deflected in off the skate of Ottawa defender Dion Phaneuf. Suddenly, the Penguins had matched their total offensive output from the three previous games.

For the Penguins, it’s a step in the right direction.

“I saw a lot of urgency on the part of the opponent, which was to be expected. You know, Stanley Cup champions, and they bounce back in every series. So that was to be expected,” said Senators coach Guy Boucher.

“I found that we fumbled a lot of pucks, and we didn’t look sharp at all in the first two periods.”

The Senators made a game of it, reducing Pittsburgh’s lead to just one goal late in the third period. But they couldn’t complete the comeback, failing to convert on a late power play despite a flurry of chances off the stick of Erik Karlsson after the Penguins were called for too many men on the ice with 34.3 seconds remaining.

The Penguins won this game while playing the majority of it with five defensemen.

Yes, more injury concern for the blue line.

Chad Ruhwedel left the game and didn’t return after he was hit into the boards by Ottawa forward Bobby Ryan in the final seconds of the first period.

The Penguins began this game already without defensemen Kris Letang (who hasn’t played in these playoffs) and Justin Schultz.

Murray made 24 saves for the win.

Game 5 goes Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Penguins could dress seven defensemen tonight in Ottawa

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There’s reason to believe the Pittsburgh Penguins may go with seven defensemen in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final tonight at Ottawa.

Justin Schultz will not be one of those seven, after getting hurt in Game 2.

But Trevor Daley was a possibility to return for Game 3, and at this morning’s skate he was paired with Olli Maatta. The other two pairs were Brian Dumoulin with Ron Hainsey and Chad Ruhwedel with Ian Cole.

Mark Streit, meanwhile, worked on the Penguins’ top power play, which is now minus Schultz. Streit has yet to make an appearance in these playoffs, but head coach Mike Sullivan hinted yesterday that that could change tonight.

“He’s a really savvy player,” Sullivan said. “I think he could help us on our power play. He could help us get out of our end zone. I think he’s got great puck skills.”

Read more: Penguins defense holding together, somehow

To make room for a seventh d-man, the Penguins wouldn’t have to scratch a forward. They simply wouldn’t insert a winger for Bryan Rust, who was also hurt in Game 2. Rust did not take line rushes this morning.

If the Penguins go with six defensemen, expect to see Tom Kuhnhackl enter the lineup.

Update:

Penguins defense holding together vs. Senators, somehow

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are proving the old adage that you can never have enough defensemen.

They could actually use a few more now, after Justin Schultz got hurt in last night’s win over the Senators. The Pens were already without two injured d-men: Trevor Daley and, of course, Kris Letang.

Schultz’s early departure from Game 2 forced Brian Dumoulin to log a team-high 26:08 of ice time, followed by Ron Hainsey with 24:49. Next was Olli Maatta at 22:33, while AHL journeyman Chad Ruhwedel had 21:25 and Ian Cole finished with 20:20.

Hainsey, 36, was traded from Carolina in February. He’d never been in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before. He’s sure in them now.

“Keep ’em short,” Hainsey said of shift lengths, per the Post-Gazette. “You get into a rhythm, kind of, with a rotation going. Just don’t overtax yourself at any one point because if you get into a situation where you can’t recover, that’s when you can go out there and make mistakes. I think we did a fairly good job of keeping ’em 40 seconds and not being tired when we went back out there.”

The Pens also acquired veteran defender Mark Streit at the deadline. But the 39-year-old has been a healthy scratch for the playoffs.

It remains to be seen who will be ready to go tomorrow when the Eastern Conference Final shifts to Ottawa. There had been talk that Daley could return by then. Head coach Mike Sullivan didn’t provide an update on Schultz after Game 2.

Whichever d-men end up dressing, the Pens are confident in what they’ve got back there.

“There’s always the next guy who’s going to step up,” said Maatta. “Everybody has to play a little more minutes. I don’t think it really matters. We have so many good players in here.”

Report: Daley could return to Penguins lineup for Game 3

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A reinforcement could be on the way for the Penguins’ blue line during the Eastern Conference Final.

According to a report from Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet during Game 1 of the series between the Penguins and Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh defenseman Trevor Daley could potentially return by Game 3.

Daley has missed the last three games for Pittsburgh, after he was hurt last round on a hit from Tom Wilson.

“There might be some help for that depleted blue line on Pittsburgh,” said Kypreos on Saturday. “It’s believed his lower-body injury has rebounded a little better in the last week and he is possible to reappear for Game 3.

“The perception is the production has been down for Pittsburgh, but actually guys it’s probably equal to where it was a year ago, which speaks volumes for guys like Schultz, Hainsey and Cole and their contributions so far in these playoffs.”

That the Penguins got by the Capitals without the injured Kris Letang on the blue line is impressive, even though Pittsburgh’s group of defenders did struggle in Games 5 and 6 against Washington. Instead, they’ve relied upon the likes of Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin and 36-year-old Ron Hainsey to play heavy minutes.

Hainsey, playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in his career, had a key role in setting up Evgeni Malkin‘s tying goal Saturday, before the Penguins lost in overtime and the Sens took the series lead.

“Some guys, we’ve asked them to play more significant roles,” said coach Mike Sullivan prior to Game 1. “I think these guys are giving us everything they have back there. They’re blocking shots, they’re defending hard, they’re helping us come out of our zone.”