The highlight of the Penguins’ opening goal against the Rangers on Thursday, April 8, is obvious— rookie Radim Zohorna, who not only towers over the entire Rangers roster at 6-foot-6 but can out-skate many of them as well, swung through the crease before tucking home his second goal in his fourth NHL game.
But the most interesting aspect to that play may be its setup, which followed a pattern that many Penguins goals have in their recent surge to a playoff spot (they’ve gone 14-4-1 in their past 19 games): the goal was set up by a defenseman.
In fact, out of the 11 goals Pittsburgh scored in its last two victories (5-2 against the Rangers on April 8; 6-4 over the Devils on April 9), seven of them have been set up by blueliners.
The Penguins have been scoring in bunches as of late. They’ve topped four goals eight times in their past nine games. In this latter half of the 2020-21 season, they’ve lost when their defensive structure has fallen apart, not when their offense stops scoring.
Let’s step back and take a look at Thursday’s Zohorna goal— and the tape-to-tape cross-ice pass from Marcus Pettersson that made the whole thing happen.
Then we remember Jason Zucker’s third-period goal in that same game, where Cody Ceci looks up before sliding a 100-foot pass up the right-side boards to spring Evan Rodrigues behind the Rangers’ defense.
The next day against the Devils, Sidney Crosby’s quick slot goal on a behind-the-net feed only happened because John Marino surveyed the scene from the blue line and rattled a hard pass around the boards to locate Jake Guentzel alone behind the cage.
And three days earlier, during the Penguins’ 8-4 loss to the New York Rangers (where all four goals involved defensemen), Mike Matheson zipped up to the right corner in an aggressive pinch, dragged the puck around behind the goal and back-handed it to Guentzel in the slot.
All four of the defensemen whose assists we’ve looked at (Pettersson, Ceci, Marino and Matheson) have received criticism for decisions they’ve made in the defensive end, but their offensive contributions are a huge part of what has boosted the Penguins to trail only the Colorado Avalanche as the highest-scoring team in the NHL with 138 goals in the season so far.
At least part of that may be in thanks to Todd Rierden, the defensive-minded assistant coach that the Penguins snapped up after he was relieved from his job as head coach of the Washington Capitals. Rierden has served in this role before, when he worked as an assistant behind Pittsburgh’s bench from 2010-14.
One of the defenseman he worked most closely with in that earlier tenure was the Penguins’ most offensive-minded defenseman, Kris Letang. Rierden helped coach Letang through his first full 82-game season (and his first 50-point campaign) back in 2010-11. As Rierden told NHL.com when he was re-hired by the Penguins organization in 2020:
Definitely coming back to work with Kris was something that I looked forward to. We spent a lot of time in those infant stages of him becoming an NHL defenseman and being able to find a common ground between the unbelievable talent level that he has and staying healthy, and then being able to still contribute at both ends of the ice.
That knee-jerk instinct to contribute on both ends of the ice isn’t always a good thing. This scoring-first mindset has a tendency to leave the Penguins open to dangerous odd-man rushes from the opposition.
On the bright side, it also gives us plays like the ones we outlined above. It means that players like Ceci and Marino look up for an available pass before they blindly dump a puck into the neutral zone, and it’s making the Penguins one of the highest-scoring teams in the League.
Of course, Pittsburgh’s defense chipping in on the rush isn’t anything new. The team’s blueliners had 88 points through 41 games in 2019-20, while they have 86 through 41 this season.
The difference is that in this 2020-21 campaign, a huge majority of those defensive points have come in the span of just over a month. Since the beginning of March, right when the Penguins’ offense was bitten by Pittsburgh’s pervasive injury bug, the defensive corps have recorded 52 points. In the absence of key forwards from Evgeni Malkin to Kasperi Kapanen, it’s Pittsburgh’s blueliners that have been stepping up their games the most.
It’s hard to pin the credit for a team’s entire defensive structure on one particular person, but the fact that Rierden both worked with Letang in the early stages of his career and is now in charge of a high-scoring Pittsburgh defense is worth noting.
It also just might be the reason the Penguins have secured themselves a playoffs spot even with a roster that, on paper, is a far cry from what we expected to see at the start of the season.