Penguins continue to find high reward with low-risk approach against Sabres

PITTSBURGH — If their October couldn’t have gone worse (it probably couldn’t have), the Pittsburgh Penguins appear to be finding something in November.

A fourth consecutive win — 4-0 over the Buffalo Sabres at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday night — has coach Mike Sullivan’s club on the verge of erasing a disastrous start to their season.

“I think it’s essential,” Sullivan said, speaking not to the Penguins’ winning streak but instead to how they’ve gone about earning those victories.

The Penguins have appeared comfortable playing a style more conducive to maintaining success. Basically, they’re not as risky as they were in October. Also, they aren’t generating chances as much off the rush, but rather from many areas.

Against the Sabres, Evgeni Malkin scored from below the goal line in the first period and Erik Karlsson off a point shot through traffic on the power play in the third. In between, Drew O’Connor transitioned a turnover into a snipe in the second period.

More on those goals in a bit.

Until then, though, consider where on the ice from which the Penguins scored and more of what Sullivan said after this victory.

“I say to them almost daily, ‘We’re capable of creating offense in different ways,’” Sullivan said. “If the opportunity isn’t there off the rush, we’ve got to be willing to put pucks behind defensemen … create from below the goal line and the hash marks, the grind game. We can create just as well that way as if we create off the rush.

“That has to be part of the fabric of our identity: Become a team that’s hard to play against.”

Look, hockey coaches use those last four words a lot, to the point that “hard to play against” has become perhaps the most common cliché in the NHL. If “hard to play against” is repeated to players as often as it is to reporters, league coaches probably say it more often each week than they do “hello” to their families.

This is no knock against coaches using clichés. They exist for a reason, and that reason is they’re true.

Case in point: Never has a coach said, after a Stanley Cup win, that his club was “easy to play against.” Go ahead and try a Google search; it’s never happened.

So, what does “hard to play against” mean for these Penguins?

“The biggest thing for me in being hard to play against is cutting some risk out of your game, so you don’t give teams easy offense,” Sullivan said on Saturday night.

Sounds easy enough, right?

Well, as former player and current Penguins broadcaster Phil Bourque has said probably 10,000 times over his three decades with the franchise, “The Penguins don’t make anything easy.”

Also true. Just not as true over the first couple weeks of this month.

The Penguins have allowed an average of eight high-danger chances against at five-on-five over the past four games, as measured by the Natural Stat Trick website. (The Sabres had 13 of those, seven of which occurred after the Penguins were ahead 3-0 early in the third period.)

On their winning streak, at five-on-five, the Penguins are averaging a plus-4 advantage in high-danger chances, and they’ve outscored their opponents 10-1.

Are all of these stats skewed because of a blowout victory in San Jose that launched this winning streak? Absolutely.

Still, the Penguins are plus-1 in high-danger chances at five-on-five over the past three games — two of those on the road (in Anaheim and Los Angeles) and one at home. And they’ve scored five goals compared to allowing two at five-on-five in those games.

If you’ve been watching them play this month and thinking, “Hey, are the Penguins finding something?” you’d find some agreement among players.

“We’re playing as five guys, or even as six with Jars, too,” Marcus Pettersson said, referring to goalie Tristan Jarry, who returned from a swollen eye to record his third shutout of the season on Saturday night.

“Hockey’s a hard game when you play one on one. One guy’s going and four are sitting back.”

The Penguins had too much of that going on in October. Not so much in November, and their neutral-zone play has noticeably improved.

“I’d say so,” Pettersson said. “We’ve been finding better reads; when to go, when not to go.

“We get up the ice. We read it better — if we kind of keep it tight or if we hunt. That’s what I mean by ‘keep it tight.’ If five guys go, we’re good. If five guys sit back, we’re good. We’re on our toes in both cases, and we’re making the right decisions.”

Through four games, anyway.

A lot more of what the Penguins have done in these last four games would go a long way toward having them in possession of a playoff spot by Thanksgiving. And that’s where every NHL club wants to be by that unofficial line of demarcation in the salary-cap era.


No. 1: Malkin’s magic

Malkin’s goal against the Sabres was ridiculous. It’s a type of goal that shouldn’t happen at the highest level of hockey. It’s also a type of goal that players such as Malkin and Sidney Crosby — and Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux before them — have scored a lot for the Penguins since the mid-1980s. Not impossible (because players like those have scored such goals), but highly unlikely, if not improbable.

Some fans go decades without seeing a player on their club score a goal as Malkin did on Saturday night. In Pittsburgh, it was a coincidental display of generational talent by one European-born legend a day after his franchise announced it would retire the number of its first European-born legend.

No. 2: Traffic, don’t stop

Karlsson’s goal was the kind he’s expected to score on the power play: A shot from the point. What stood out about it is that there were actual bodies of teammates near the puck as it neared the goalie.

Too often this season, the other players on the Penguins’ top power play haven’t been in a position to divert attention from a goalie, let alone jump on a rebound, when Karlsson has taken a shot. On this one, Malkin and Crosby had taken up space near the goalposts. What’s a goalie to do when they’re in those spots and Karlsson is firing away?

Not much a goalie can do, actually. That’s the point.

If assistant coach Todd Reirden, who runs the power play, is looking for a slice of video to show his No. 1 man-advantage unit at practice on Monday — or any day the rest of this season — he won’t find a better few seconds than the sequence on Karlsson’s power-play marker against the Sabres.

No. 3: Finally

O’Connor hadn’t scored in 31 regular-season games before his goal against the Sabres. The look on his face, when his shot eluded Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, was one of relief, and nothing he said after the Penguins’ win better indicated how good that goal felt to O’Connor. Opposing goalies had stopped his previous 39 shots dating to March 2 in Tampa.

Gaining confidence from his long-awaited goal would do a lot for O’Connor and the Penguins. If he can find just a sliver of a scoring touch, their steadily improving third line could become something the franchise has lacked for a few seasons — a factor.

(Photo: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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