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Net-front defense is saving the Penguins’ early season

Seventeen different Penguins blocked a shot in the first four games of 2021-22.

NHL: Preseason-Pittsburgh Penguins at Buffalo Sabres
Penguins defenseman Taylor Fedun (4) dives to try and block a shot by the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 1, 2021.
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into Friday, October 22, the Metropolitan Division standings are perilously tight. The Penguins’ 2-0-2 record has left them as one of a whopping six teams in the division wedged between two points in the standings.

Many division rivals have surged out to early winning records. As of Friday, the Rangers are 3-1-1, the Hurricanes, 3-0-0 and the Blue Jackets, 3-1-0— but few of them have completely locked down high-danger scoring chances from the crease.

Except for Pittsburgh and Washington.

According to HockeyViz, which visualizes unblocked shot rates (the deeper the blue, the fewer the shots compared to the League average), these two rivals have combined to set up some of the stingiest defense in Metropolitan Division— as well as the entire NHL.

Both the Penguins and Capitals have allowed notably fewer shots down low than the early-season NHL average.
hockeyviz.com

Compare that to the New Jersey Devils (2-1-0). They have allowed relatively few shots against in their first three games. The Devils’ average of 27.7 shots against per game ranks No. 4 in the NHL, compared to the Capitals’ 25.3 per contest (No. 2) and the Penguins’ 29.0 each outing (No. 9).

Shots against through Oct. 22, 2021

Team Games played Shots against per game
Team Games played Shots against per game
Sharks 3 25
Capitals 4 25.3
Bruins 2 26.5
Devils 3 27.7
Maple Leafs 4 28
Predators 4 28.5
Sabres 3 28.7
Kings 3 28.7
Penguins 4 29
Blackhawks 5 29

But the Devils limited unblocked shots against are still coming from the dangerous high slot, indicating that New Jersey’s early winning record may be only gold-plated— and reflecting well on the Penguins’ early defensive stats in contrast.

The Devils have allowed more scoring chances from the high slot than the majority of the NHL through three games.
hockeyviz.com

The Penguins have collected six of eight points without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin— and their determination to block shots down low is undoubtedly helping the injured beast that is Pittsburgh keep limping pace with its opponents.

Seventeen different Penguins have registered at least one official shot block through the first four games of the 2021-22 campaign. Many of those have been within spitting distance of the blue paint, where they count the most. These blocks are the reasons that Pittsburgh has been able to limit high-danger scoring chances from the high slot better than most other teams in the NHL.

They are the team’s best hope of besting the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday— and, perhaps, of winning when they finally match up with their so-far similarly defensively solid rival Capitals on Nov. 14.