Obviously when a team is on a 15-game winning streak like the Penguins are now, they’re doing something – a lot of things – right.
But in Pittsburgh’s case, the part that matters most and the part that’s most important heading into the playoffs is their defensive play.
Right now, the numbers are staggering.
The Penguins have shut out their opponents in three straight games, not allowing a goal in the last 208:24 minutes of play – establishing a new team record. The previous team record was 187:30 set between Jan. 31-Feb. 13, 1993 (Ken Wregget/Tom Barasso). The last goal given up by Pittsburgh was to Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux at 14:09 of the second period on March 24.
The Penguins have now held their opponents to two or fewer goals in their past 11 games. During that span they have allowed just nine goals and have recorded four shutouts – with top defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin, who lead the team in minutes played, missing a combined six of those games.
Their transition to playing committed defense happened early in the winning streak after allowing 17 goals in the first four victories. While they knew they could keep winning games outscoring teams, they also knew having that mentality and getting into habits like that wouldn’t get them anywhere in the postseason.
“I think we came to a clear understanding no matter how good of a team we are, if we’re not going to commit to playing the right way, we’ll still win and we’ll still make the playoffs and we’ll be talked about as a good team, but I don’t think we have as good of a chance to be a great team or win in the playoffs,” goalie Tomas Vokoun said. “It’s a little adjustment and it’s been working for us really well. It’s not just the wins. It’s even if we are down, we don’t change our system or we don’t deviate from our systems and what we need to do out there. We stay patient and just play to the end.”
Vokoun has been a crucial part of the team’s success. He stopped a season-high 35 shots to record his second consecutive shutout and third shutout of the year against the New York Islanders on Saturday. Vokoun has now won seven straight games and has stopped 168 of his last 172 shots in that span (.976 SVP).
Vokoun has not let up a goal in his last 162:42 minutes of play, setting a new team individual record – and career high. The previous Pittsburgh team record was 150:14, established by goalie partner Marc-Andre Fleury between March 24-27, 2011.
Vokoun’s play over the course of the season has been symbolic of the team’s. After experiencing a rough stretch in February, where he allowed 16 goals in three starts (getting pulled in one), the veteran goalie has settled in and has been locked in between the pipes for the Penguins this month.
“He’s been rock solid,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “As we’ve started to play better as a team, he started to improve too. We hung him out to dry a few times earlier in the year and he’s been rock solid. Controlling rebounds, timely saves, he just controls everything. He’s really been a good backstop for us back there.”
I think we came to a clear understanding no matter how good of a team we are, if we’re not going to commit to playing the right way, we’ll still win and we’ll still make the playoffs and we’ll be talked about as a good team, but I don’t think we have as good of a chance to be a great team or win in the playoffs. - Tomas Vokoun
Vokoun agreed with that assessment, saying, “I think it’s a team sport and sometimes you reflect the play of the team on you and vice versa. The team has been playing pretty good for a while. Me and Flower, we both benefit from that. I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job too and the team benefits from that.”
Fleury’s numbers have been staggering, too. He is currently riding a season-high eight-game winning streak, where he’s posted a 1.50 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. Over his last six starts this season regardless of location, Fleury is 6-0 with a 0.88 goals-against average and a .967 save percentage with one shutout.
“That’s something that we’re going to need to win games in the playoffs,” Fleury said of the team’s defensive play. “The team’s playing very well in front of us and our chances to win are that much better with that.”
The guys credited the play of their goaltenders, a scary-good tandem, as the main reason for the team’s turnaround in their own end.
“They’ve been awesome,” forward Brandon Sutter said. “We’ve definitely improved our defensive zone play over the last month here and have gotten a lot better at that and tightened things up a bit and that obviously helps, but for ‘Flower’ and ‘Voky’ to be playing the way they are has been awesome. I think there has been three, four, maybe five times a game where we make a mistake and they’re there to bail us out and that’s kind of been the difference. They’ve obviously been a huge part of this run and the last few games they’ve been awesome.”
But what’s also been key is playing as a five-man unit in front of their goaltender.
“It’s a total team thing. Forwards are included in that,” Niskanen said. “Everyone’s buying in and really trying to focus on what we’re trying to get better at and that’s keeping the puck out of our net, team defense, being responsible with the puck. Everyone’s done a better job of just limiting the other team’s quality scoring chances and the goalies have been there when we do give up a shot or something and the penalty kill has improved. A lot of factors, but guys are just committed to it now.”
“It’s not just defensemen – it’s five men and a goalie,” defenseman Mark Eaton said. “Positioning and then how we’re playing with the puck. Not beating ourselves. Making them earn every chance that they get. That’s been our focus and that’s going to continue to be our focus.”