Think back to the beginning of the 2013-14 Pittsburgh Penguins season. Defensive pairings were set, and they were solid. Not only was Marc Andre Fleury posting solid outings with Jeff Zatkoff spelling him when necessary, but the defense in front of the netminders was as fundamentally sound as you can expect.
So sound that it wasn’t until the 16th game of the season when the Penguins gave up more than four goals in a game. That game was a 5-1 debacle against the New York Rangers, but it proved to be an aberration as the team went another 10 games without giving up more than four goals.
Some fans would say that four goals is four too many, but in today’s NHL teams are going to put up goals. The Penguins’ offense is good enough that if the defense can keep opposing teams off that five-goal plateau the team should have a chance to pull out the victory.
As great as things were going, the injury bug hit the blue line hard. Injured players like Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Kris Letang and Rob Scuderi left the defense in shambles, and on top of the injuries a suspension to Deryk Engelland just made matters worse.
Even though the players like Philip Samuelsson, Brandon Dumoulin and Simon Despres did more than a good job in their stead, the waiting game for the injured to return was a long one.
Now that almost all of those injured defenders have returned to their designated spots on the blue line fans are wondering what is going on. The Penguins are still winning, but the defense isn’t the same. In the Penguins’ last 10 games they are 7-2-1. That is a stellar stretch of games, but look inside the numbers and you see some issues. Within that 10 game stretch the Penguins are winning high scoring shootout type games. They are averaging 3.2 goals per game in the last 10, and that number that is simply too high.
So, what’s the problem? The Penguins’ defenders are essentially starting training camp all over again. When defenders got accustomed to playing alongside the AHL substitutes, once the regulars returned it’s bound to take some time getting back into the flow of the game.
Fortunately, the Penguins have an offense that can make up for some lackluster defense which has kept them winning. But the defense needs improving, and that will only come with time.
Allow the pairings of Orpik-Martin and Scuderi-Letang to eventually get used to playing alongside one another again, and the defense is bound to start looking more like the team that started the season and less like the team in the last 10 games.
It is starting to look like the Olympic break in NHL action couldn’t come at a better time for the ailing Penguins, especially their blue liners.