And to that end they scored 5, 5, 2, 8, 5, 4, 5 and 3 goals in the eight games into Crosby's second return. An impressive output, despite whoever the competition would be on any given night.
To say nothing of Evgeni Malkin running laps around the league in points (Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux aside, but barely). And James Neal, he of the electric shot and 37 goals good enough for 4th in the league in goals and 5th in the league in points. Or Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke chomping at the bit for career years. Or Chris Kunitz and Jordan Staal who are clicking along at their own impressive rates.
The enthusiasm to put the puck in the net and receive teammates in hugs and the fist-bump line along the bench is infectious. Especially when things are going well.
The issue lies in the all-around game and effort. Dan Bylsma's system is predicated on pressure, possesion, shots on goal, zone time, north/south play, aggressive work and positioning.
There is, however, that other nagging aspect for playing succesful hockey. Especially this time of year when the playoffs are close and the great teams are prepping themselves for the rigors and battles of what they hope is four rounds of Stanley Cup playoff action.
And that is having a defensive conscious. Of working just as hard when you don't have the puck. Of keeping good positioning, stellar gap control, filling shooting lanes, blocking shots, deflecting passes, winning puck battles, re-gaining possession. All of these are tenants of Bylsma's system, just as they are of any NHL coach's frequent talking points of focus, effort and attention to detail for 60 minutes. And it's here where championship teams are forged.
Enter Brooks Orpik, a player who doesn't have the puck skills of any player named in this article. But one who's job is to lock down opposing players, eat up minutes, be a force physically and keep things in check for the team to be succesful. Just as the role is for many of the other players like Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin, Craig Adams, Arron Asham, Joe Vitale, Richard Park. And on and on.
So it should be no surprise that Orpik, often cited as the team's vocal leader and conscious. Because just as the team piled up all those goals for, those good "Red lights" behind the goalie, they've also allowed 2, 2, 3, 4, 1, 8, 2, 5 goals against sequentially in each game. And it's no coincidence that the numbers have been trending larger as the games have gone on. The sun doesn't shine forever and this is hardly the time of the year to be developing lax habits.
So let's allow Orpik to put it out on the table for himself:
"It’s been probably been six games, maybe, if you look at the goals-against, the chances-against, we’ve been giving up way too many. I guess it’s our approach going into games – outscore rather than out-defend teams. If we come in with the mentality to out-defend, I think we’ll be fine. With the personnel that we have, I think we’ll get our chances. We’re just playing too open right now. The way we’re playing is kind of 50-50."
Straight talk from a guy who tells it like he sees. And what he's seeing is right. The Pens are allowing too many chances to their opponents because they're playing too loose, too wide open at this point.
Yes, they have Malkin-Crosby-Staal down the middle. And no, no opponent can match that firepower down the middle. But that doesn't mean they should totally throttle open, and as Ottawa and the NY Islanders have shown in recent games, it doesn't mean that any opponent this time of year isn't going to be opportunistic to counter-act it when they can.
This is not news or a shock to any party. The core of this team is pretty much the one that has been to two Stanley Cup finals. They know what the playoffs require and how to play, from Marc-Andre Fleury in net on out. But knowing what to do, and getting the rude awakening is a different story.
We've had our fun and seen our talent. Now it's time to buckle down, boys. That's the message that Orpik's sending. And that's absolutely the correct thing to say at this point in time. The Pittsburgh Penguins probably can out-gun any team in the league in a shootout. But what wins games and playoff series is a little more gritty, a little less glamorous and a little more intense. These Pens can, and ought to, buckle down.
And it's better to get that message two weeks before the playoffs than two weeks into it.