Pittsburgh’s Playoff Defense Gone Awol


Apr 16, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) dives to knock the puck away from Columbus Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen (19) during the third period in game one of the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a Game 1 victory, the Pittsburgh Penguins marginally escaped a 0-1 series’ deficit.

Point being – they got lucky.

Lucky, that Columbus put Pittsburgh on the power-play multiple times. Lucky, that Sergei Bobrovsky was utterly disappointing. And fortunate that Marc-Andre Fleury held on just long enough to pull through a win behind a sloppy defensive front.

Fleury’s received the brunt of the blame for recent postseason fallouts, but how ’bout directing criticism towards the defense? Why does Fleury take all the heat?

Excluding Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen, who played great, the other blueliners have vastly underperformed. Kris Letang can’t shake the turnovers that have haunted him all season, while Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, and Rob Scuderi seem stagnant as they age by the day.

Problem is, the defensive breakdowns are too frequent. Pens’ defensemen are having a difficult time picking up their assignments, possessing the puck, and keeping pace with these younger phenoms. I’ve observed Martin, Orpik, and Scuderi absolutely be undressed by opposing forwards this season far too often. Most recently Martin, who got his ankles broke by ‘Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky, that led to the first goal of the game for either sides Wednesday.

Owning a hesitant and slow defense is like a remote without batteries – it’s not going to work.

While the grueling body-checks and tightly-contested puck battles are being well executed, every aspect of defending needs to be covered. On a lot of occasions this season, Fleury has bailed the defense out when its collapsed. And while it’s alleviating to see that all of Pittsburgh’s injured defenders be presently active – who some have just recently been re-inserted – their room for error is extremely narrow. Therefore, patience is limited with the coaching staff.

We saw that with Letang. Coughing up the puck on a power-play opportunity, head coach Dan Bylsma sequentially removed him from the first unit, and placed Niskanen – whose been in that first group all season – back on duty. Now, of course, it also may have something to do with the fact that Letang’s been out with a stroke, and slightly out of sync with the first power-play, but it’s clear that Bylsma won’t force players who aren’t being effective.

Look, it’s just one game, I get that. However, the Pens’ must sure their net protection up sooner rather than later if they ever want a shot at beating defensive-oriented squads.

As fan, I have to hope that it’s just a matter of getting their feet wet. Letang and Martin are still getting a feel for the ice, given their long-term injuries, and that’s affecting Orpik and Scuderi, ’cause that’s their partners.

For Game 2, I’d like to see Pittsburgh play a prolific all-around contest. Secure the win yes, but do it like you know how. Addressing the issues on defense should be priority number-one for Pittsburgh.

Saturday’s Game 2 can be seen on the NBC Sports Network, and is set to start at 7 p.m.