It’s easy to ignore a team’s flaws when they are winning games. The Pittsburgh Penguins are tied for first in the Eastern Conference right now with 38 points but are they any better than they were a year ago when they suffered an embarrassing first round exit to their rivals the Philadelphia Flyers?
We all know the Penguins can score goals. They lead the NHL in goal scoring this season with 100. That is twelve more than the second highest scoring team the Tampa Bay Lightning. Unfortunately, scoring a lot of goals doesn’t equate to success when it matters most in the playoffs. In fact, scoring a lot of goals doesn’t even guarantee you will make the playoffs. Of course the Pittsburgh Penguins will comfortably get into the playoffs this season but will the Tampa Bay Lightning who sit 12th in the Eastern Conference? Last season the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, two of the top ten scoring teams in the NHL missed the playoffs. Of the other eight that did make it, six of them lost in the first round. Only the Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators saw second round action from last season’s high scoring squads. And they were both bounced in the 2nd round.
Strong defense gets positive results. Every team from last season’s top ten in goals against made the playoffs. Six of the ten made the second round and all four conference finalists were top ten in goals against last year – The Rangers 2nd, Kings 3rd, Coyotes 7th and Devils 8th. The Los Angeles Kings who eventually won the Stanley Cup were not only 2nd in goals against last season, amazingly they were 29th in goals scored. That’s right, 28 teams in a 30 team league scored more goals than the Stanley Cup champs last season.
Same old Penguins? A season ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins led the NHL in goal scoring. They even scored a bunch in the first round. The Pens tallied 26 goals in 6 games against the Flyers. Unfortunately they allowed 30. This season the Penguins rank 23rd in goals against. The season isn’t over yet but they have shown no sign that Crosby and his cast of scorers have improved defensively. It could be a problem for them when the playoffs begin. Looking back on the last five years it’s clear that teams with good regular season defensive records win Stanley Cups. I guess that’s what the regular season is for. You develop good habits and prepare for a long playoff run if you’re good enough. Good defensive habits and structure are the most important characteristic a team can develop as they prepare for grueling playoff matches where 2 or 3 goals is often enough to win a game.
In 2010-11 the league’s best defensive team was the Vancouver Canucks who made the Stanley Cup Finals only to lose in Game Seven against the league’s 3rd best defensive team the Boston Bruins. The Canucks also led the NHL in goals scored that year. There is nothing wrong with being good offensively and defensively, but if you are only going to be strong at one, defense seems like the best choice because defense usually wins championships.
In 2009-10 the Stanley Cup winner once again was a good defensive team. The Chicago Blackhawks, more known for their offensive capabilities were 5th in goals against that season. They were also 3rd in goals scored. The team that led the NHL in goals scored the 2009-10 season was the Washington Capitals. Their goal scoring success didn’t help them much when they lost in the first round to a more defensive minded Montreal Canadiens.
In 2007-08 and 2008-09 the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins played back to back Stanley Cup Finals with each team taking the big prize once. In 2007-08 when the Red Wings captured the Cup they were 1st in goals against and 3rd in goals scored. The Penguins under Michel Therrien were 8th in goals against that season. Much better defensively than recent Penguins teams.
Is the Penguins current ranking of 23rd in goals against good enough to call them a serious contender? It’s easy to think about the Penguins as the 2009 Stanley Cup Champions with last season’s scoring champion Evgeni Malkin and this season’s leading scorer Sidney Crosby as a Cup contender but since they won in 2009 their playoff record is 12-14, scoring a total of 79 and allowing 88.
Here’s why the Pittsburgh Penguins are the exception to the rule. In 2008-09 when they won their Stanley Cup they were 18th in goals against. The only team in the last five seasons to win a Cup and not be a top five team defensively.
Are the Penguins a serious Cup contender even though they aren’t a great defensive team? Of course they are. But no other team should try and win this way. The Penguins have the luxury of throwing out arguably the two best offensive players in the NHL. That makes them an exception to the rule. However, recent playoffs have shown that their reliance on outscoring their opponents in the playoffs or simple lack of defensive execution will lead to their demise more frequently than it leads to success.
Scoring goals and winning Cups. If you are wondering. The great back to back Penguins teams that won the 1990-91 and 1991-92 Stanley Cups were a scoring machine with nothing to boast about defensively. In 1990-91 the Pens finished 2nd in league scoring and 4th last in goals against. The following season the were 1st in goals scored and 3rd last in goals against. The NHL was different then but it’s worth noting that the Pittsburgh Penguins have a winning tradition in bad defensive hockey.