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Pittsburgh’s aggressive forecheck yields poor defense on the backend

The Penguins are super aggressive offensively, but it’s caused many issues on the backcheck in the defensive zone.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Penguins have a regular habit of trying to out-score their opponent in the offensive zone night in and night out rather than out-play them, as Mike Sullivan has pointed out a handful of times this season (most notably in bad losses). As a result, they’ve pinched too hard, over-worked their forecheck, and it’s causing eye-popping issues in the defensive zone.

This team is probably one of the most top-heavy clubs in the NHL this year when it comes to forward talent, and that breeds noticeable issues that’ve led to entirely too many goals against. When they fall into their wrongful pattern of focusing on scoring more than focusing on game control, the Penguins fail to control the puck as well. It’s a mental aspect causing all of these untimely turnovers.

It’s starting to become a trend for Kris Letang to bear the brunt of those defensive miscues in the backend, especially his struggle in 1-on-1 situations. When you take Letang’s stats at face value, he’s not having a bad year on paper. In fact, he leads the team in just about every important defensive stat. He leads the Penguins in shot attempts against, scoring chances against, and yet has the lowest expected goals against on the entire team. What’s hurting Letang is that fact that he owns the lowest on-ice save percentage of any of Pittsburgh’s defensemen (currently less than 88 percent).

Basically, when you break all this down, Letang plays extremely solid for like 99% of the game, but then he’ll have a short blip of time where all of that is wiped away by him getting undressed by opposing players off of his poor choices. It’s negatively affecting his goaltender’s save percentage and is rather incredible to watch.

The franchise d-man keeps getting absolutely torched in odd-man breaks by his opponents. Many times, it’s because of poor positioning due to unsuccessful zone clearance or heavy pinches. Letang has gone on record in priding himself with how passionate he plays the game and how he uses his high level of skill to try and right his in-game mistakes. In the past five tilts or so, it’s been all we can focus on for him. In this past week alone, three of these situations stood out to me, namely this one:

We’re going to call the above sequence “Pulling a Letang.” This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the veteran make a bad choice that led to either a breakaway scoring opportunity or goal against, and I doubt it’ll be the last. I did make a note of it after the first instance of this happening again last night against the Habs. Here’s a look at Letang get completely undressed by Paul Byron before Jonathan Drouin pounds in the rebound.

Unfortunately, this isn’t anything new for the Penguins this season. When you look at the goals their net-minders have allowed, it isn’t a small number, and that’s obviously attested to the lack of consistency between the pipes paired with the defense played in front of them. But if Pittsburgh wants to make a dent in this year’s postseason, it has to stop allowing teams to claw their way back in games that seem to be definite win for the Penguins – a la Montreal Wednesday night.

This team might be conserving energy for the playoffs, and that’s fine. The offense is still dominant and clicking at an incredible rate, which should scare the hell out of the rest of the field. Matt Murray is back too, and apart from his injuries and the terrible loss of his father, I’d expect him to string together many performances like the one he put down against the Islanders in his return. That game would’ve been a lot worse without him.

The problem just lies with cleaning up some of the small defensive errors that lead to great chances for their opponents in the backend. You can’t solely rely on your snipers and playmakers to bail you out when things heat up come Round 1, especially if you land a matchup with a team coming in super hot as most eastern opponents look right now.