PITTSBURGH - Should the Penguins stumble in the Stanley Cup playoffs, many will blame coach Dan Bylsma. The man who owns the fourth-highest winning percentage in NHL regular-season history and who led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009 is under pressure simply because NHL coaches always are.
His system is under considerable pressure, too.
The Penguins' hurry-up style of hockey will be tested this spring and received some subtle jabs during the regular season.
Bylsma revised the system last summer — a more conservative approach in the neutral zone, intended to cut down on opportunities for the opposition, did just that — which helped the Penguins finish 10th in the NHL in goals against despite losing their top four defensemen for long stretches.
“When it works,” former Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy said, “it looks so pretty.”
But does it always work? This spring might represent the ultimate test.
‘Getting to our game'
Patience plays a small role in the Penguins' system. Bylsma used to label it “getting to our game,” and the general definition of that motto is to make sure the Penguins' world-class forwards receive the puck on their sticks early and often so they have maximum opportunities to bombard the opposition with shots. Of course, the Penguins' system is far more complicated than that, which is why Bylsma no longer favors such a simple phrase.
When executed properly, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin often receive the puck on the fly in the neutral zone, which never is a bad thing for the Penguins.
“Our forwards are so good,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “It's basically drilled into our heads that we are to get them the puck as quickly as possible.”
Some defensemen can handle this style of hockey, but others can't. Lovejoy was in such a rush to get a puck out of his territory that, in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals against Philadelphia, he coughed up a puck to the Flyers' Sean Couturier, who scored a moment later to tie a game that the Penguins lost.
“It wasn't the right system for me,” Lovejoy said.
Martin said even though the system is designed to play an exceptionally fast brand of hockey, a defenseman still must use his hockey instincts.
“As a player,” Martin said, “you have to realize that some of those plays aren't always there. So there are times when you really can't rush things.”
The stretch pass
The Penguins use the stretch pass frequently. Such passes became trendy when the NHL eliminated the red line in 2005, allowing players the freedom to fire passes from their own goal to the opposition's blue line.
Stretch passes ideally are directed with a touch pass to a forward who is entering the attacking zone with speed. Crosby and Malkin create considerable offense when these plays click.
Of course, when they don't click, the Penguins can appear sluggish and are susceptible to the counterattack.
“With the system they use in Pittsburgh,” former Penguins forward Brenden Morrow said, “they like to make the puck do most of the work.”
In St. Louis, Morrow said, a more conservative style has been beneficial for his game.
“We definitely use a safer style,” Morrow said. “A lot more puck support. That doesn't mean Pittsburgh's system doesn't work. They have the speed and talent to pull it off. But it's not easy. And I didn't have the speed to make it work with my game.”
Tyler Kennedy, the former Penguins right wing who now plays in San Jose, acknowledged that life with the Sharks is much different. He also said the Sharks are more concerned with their defensive play than the Penguins ever were.
“We use so much more puck support in San Jose,” he said. “We were more about getting the puck out and taking care of our own end.”
The Penguins' puck retrieval system is demanding on defensemen, who must operate at a high speed and execute difficult plays. This is why the Penguins have been dedicated to the drafting and development of good puck-moving defensemen such as Olli Maatta.
Some players, though, believe the Penguins' system isn't so dissimilar than any other team's methods.
“It's hockey,” left wing Tanner Glass said. “I think people make too big of a deal out of that stuff. It's still about playing the game the right way.”
Still, there is an element of high-risk hockey in the Penguins' game. Where most teams elect to safely clear their defensive zone and create offense moving forward, the Penguins' system requires a series of delicate passes, sometimes in their own territory.
“It's complex,” Lovejoy said. “They're so talented that they usually pull it off. They have people who do it very, very well.”
Lovejoy explained that, when it is clicking on all cylinders, the Penguins' system is a thing of beauty. One minor mistake, though, can create a disaster.
The high-octane style will be under a microscope this spring. Many of the league's most successful teams — notably Boston, St. Louis, San Jose and Anaheim — use simpler styles.
“I like it,” Martin said. “So much of it is timing. We have to be on the same page. But it's an aggressive style, and I think it gives us a chance to do a lot of good things.”
(Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.)