Marc-Andre Fleury

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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.

Murray gets Game 5 start for Penguins; injured players game-time decisions

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PITTSBURGH — In what should be no surprise following his performance in Game 4 on Friday night, Matt Murray will be back in the starting lineup for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon when they return home to face the Ottawa Senators, coach Mike Sullivan announced before the game.

Murray, who backstopped the Penguins to the Stanley Cup a year ago, opened the 2017 playoffs with an injury setting the stage for Marc-Andre Fleury to regain his starting job and carry the Penguins through the first two rounds. Even when Murray was healthy Fleury was playing far too well to be removed from the lineup. That changed in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals when Fleury gave up four goals in the first period and was replaced by Murray.

Murray went on to stop 19 of the 20 shots he faced that night, then stopped 24 out of 26 on Friday night.

In other lineup news for the Penguins, Sullivan also announced that forward Tom Kuhnhackl and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel will be out of the lineup due to injury. Ruhwedel suffered a concussion on Friday night following a hit by Bobby Ryan.

Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust and Justin Schultz will all be game-time decisions.

All three players have missed the past two games for the Penguins. While they would like to have any of them back in the lineup, Schultz’s absence is the one they are probably feeling the most given the banged up state of the defense.

Matt Murray was ‘solid’ for Penguins in return to starting role

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After backing the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup last year, Matt Murray finally made his first start of the 2017 playoffs on Friday.

The Penguins held on for the win, tying the Eastern Conference Final with the Ottawa Senators at 2-2. Murray, put back into the No. 1 role after coach Mike Sullivan opted to go with the 22-year-old puck stopper over Marc-Andre Fleury in the wake of a Game 3 loss, made 24 saves for the win.

The Sens made it interesting in the third period, cutting Pittsburgh’s lead to just a goal and then getting a power play in the final minute with a chance to tie the game.

The Sens looked outmatched through two periods but pushed for the equalizer in the third. Murray turned aside nine of 10 shots faced in the final 20 minutes.

“I thought Matt was solid. He made some timely saves for us when we needed it,” said Sullivan. “He has a calm demeanor about him. I thought he was tracking the puck extremely well. And certainly, he made a couple of key saves for us at key times. We’re fortunate that we have the guys that we have back there, whether it be Matt or Marc.”

The Penguins got the desired result Friday, but this was still another goaltending gamble from Sullivan. Once again, it worked out in his favor.

“We believe that we have both guys back there that are really high quality goaltenders,” he said. “So these decisions aren’t easy — which particular guy that we choose to put in the net. Certainly, we trust these guys, and that’s why we can make these types of decisions.”

Following the win, Fleury spoke about once again being placed in the back-up role. His future with the Penguins will certainly be up for discussion once the season comes to an end, but for now, he’s sticking true to the team-first mentality.

“I don’t want to make this about me,” Fleury told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Last playoff, this season, it’s about the team. We won [Friday]. Scored some goals. That was nice.”

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.

For the second straight year, Sullivan gambles with goalies

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Changing starting netminders midway through the Eastern Conference final is nothing new for Mike Sullivan.

Last year, against Tampa Bay, he did it twice, replacing Matt Murray with Marc-Andre Fleury for Game 5, then going back to Murray for Games 6 and 7.

Now Sullivan’s at it again.

As reported earlier, the Pens will give Murray his first start of this postseason tonight when they take on Ottawa in Game 4. The decision comes after Murray relieved Fleury 12:52 into the first period of Game 3, after Fleury allowed four goals on nine shots.

Murray finished with 19 saves on 20 shots in an eventual 5-1 loss.

Sullivan was equally tight-lipped last year, refusing to share his reasons for switching things up. And it never really became an issue, as Murray returned from his one-game hiatus to win six of eight and backstop Pittsburgh to the title.

But the story this year isn’t the change.

It’s the inherent gamble that comes with it.

There’s risk in going with Murray, who’s last start came 43 days ago (and who wasn’t even healthy enough to dress until Game 7 of the Washington series).

Will he be sharp enough? The 22-year-old looked solid in relief on Wednesday night, but there’s a significant difference between mop-up duty and starting, on the road, with your team on the verge of going down 3-1 in a series.

And then there’s the Fleury angle.

The veteran netminder is beloved by his teammates, and has been consistently praised for his work this postseason. Prior to the start of the Sens series, Sullivan said Fleury deserved the starting gig because he had “played so well for us,” and was “really at the top of his game.”

What’s more, Fleury has done a solid job of bouncing back from tough outings. In Round 1, he gave up five goals in a Game 4 loss to Columbus, then stopped 49 shots for a win in Game 5. Against Washington in Round 2, he was beaten five times on 26 shots in Game 6. He then posted a 29-save shutout in Game 7.

With those quotes and that body of work, it’s fair to suggest his benching is a harsh decision.

But it’s not an unfamiliar one.