Looking at shiftchart (as Mike Darnay pointed out) it was very clear that the Pittsburgh Penguins and coach Dan Bylsma wanted to get defensive pair Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik out against the top line of the Anaheim Ducks every chance they could get.
Playing against the other team’s top offensive threats is nothing new for Martin and Orpik, who’ve had that job together since the beginning of last season, but this week represents an unusually tough stretch even for them. Last night was the size, strength and brute skill of Dustin Penner, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. The trio combined for nine shots on goal (including Getzlaf recording the only Ducks goal of the game) but were generally held in check by Orpik and Martin, who combined for five hits, two blocked shots and a takeaway on the night.
Getzlaf and Perry are each tied for 4th in the NHL in scoring with 24 points on the season, and next game the Pens (but mostly Orpik and Martin) will see two more players who also have 24 points on the season in Alex Ovechkin (17 goals, 7 assists) and Nick Backstrom (5g, 14a). Throw in Marcus Johansson (2g, 16a) to that line and it’ll be another tough challenge for the shut-down defensive pair of the Penguins to try and keep off of the board.
After the Washington game, the Pens will play the New York Islanders, where the league’s 3rd-leading current scorer, John Tavares (9g, 16a) resides. Aside from Alex Steen (currently tied with Sidney Crosby for the points lead with 26) that makes five of the seven top scorers in the league for Pittsburgh to face in a three-game stretch this week.
Martin and Orpik are the keys to the strategy of keeping the other team’s top guns off the board. Orpik leads all Penguins defensemen with 56 hits and 42 blocked shots. Martin is right behind him with 40 blocked shots and a defense-leading 10 takeaways. Orpik’s obviously the thumper of the two - the one who will use his physicality to keep opponents away from the net, with Martin more cerebral and subtle, relying on his stick to knock the puck away or tie up the opposing player’s stick.
Differing styles aside, both mesh well with each other. Either is capable of making a breakout pass and both are experienced, smart defensemen who know to stay back in the play and give a pass outlet for his partner. Both are also workhorses - Orpik averages 19:31 per game at even strength, tops on the team, and Martin isn’t far behind with 18:51 ES ice-time per game. Both average well over 2 minutes per night on the penalty kill, grinding up the tough minutes. Looking at the Quality of Competition numbers among Penguins defensemen it’s not even close - Martin (.077) and Orpik (.071) are the only Penguins defensemen with a positive number. Their Corsi stat, relative to the competition, is also very strong.
Orpik and Martin have both been on the ice for 17 goals against at 5 on 5 hockey, so even though they’re called "shutdown" defensemen, they’re certainly not shutout defensemen. In today’s NHL game, with the speed and skill of opponents, it’s an impossible task. Even last night Ryan Getzlaf found himself all alone in front of the net, with no one but Marc-Andre Fleury around him. There will be mistakes and bumps in the road, but if the Pittsburgh Penguins can get their two defensemen to largely limit chances from the other team’s top line, their chances of getting a win will be improved dramatically.